The Cranston drum-cylinder single-revolution newspaper press

In November of 2012 I learned of a vintage press being decommissioned at a small-town prairie museum in western Kansas. By this, I mean that it was going to be scrapped soon if no one came and got it. I called and learned of their plans and realistic challenges with the space and the many donations they'd received. They'd had to move it three times over the years, 25 years since it was donated. I mobilized and the very next day I drove 285 miles (one way) to take a look.

Wow. A beautiful single-revolution big-cylinder "drum" newspaper press, built in the late 1800s. It had the wooden delivery fingers in the back, flipping out the paper on the same side as the feeding of the paper (manually, one at a time, from above). Here's an almost perfectly identical catalog representation of this press:

I spent two hours with it, took measurements and assessed condition. It is complete, with motor and overhead pulley and belt system, clutch-engage lever, stairs, and all rollers.

However, it doesn't seem to have a throw-off impression lever. One-half of the drum prints on impression, and the other half of the drum is slightly inset so that it doesn't touch the type on the swing of the bed back into position for the next impression. If a paper misfeed happens, the drive can be quickly disengaged with the long lever (detached in picture above). A brake is mentioned in some of the literature, but I don't see how this operates on this press. According to catalog specs from 1898, it is very probably a model 3 1/2, because of the reinforced metal base, the outside bed dimensions (33" x 48"), and the base's width and length (which I measured very carefully): 5' 3" by 7' 8". Despite its seemingly compact appearance, it weighs about four tons. A picture:

The press was last run and printing in 1979. It was acquired by the Cranston newspaper in November of 1909, according to the following news clipping:

At that time it was probably over ten years old. "It is a very fine piece of machinery." Indeed! These were marvels of the day. The catalog material on the press, from the late 1890s, includes size and price:

Now, there are many ways to calculate relative value of something purchased in 1898, compared to today. The $1600 price on this press did not include shipping, so all told figure roughly $1700+. The value of a new medium-sized family house in 1898 in desirable Flatbush, NY, was about $7000. More modest homes were priced at $4000. Something without running water or electricity was had for $1200. The guy running the Cranston press probably lived in the latter. So, the press he was a master of running cost 50% more than his home. That would be like a printing press costing something like $250,000 in today's dollars. Attention letterpress enthusiasts and salvationists! There's one of these over in Kansas.

The question is, what kind of value does this press have today? It apparently can't be given away, or donated to a museum that can keep it forever. The cast-iron arms and legs are still strong; it is technically complete. But printing has morphed through a revolution --- what more value can it have than as a curiousity, or a truck-sized paper weight? It's value in scrap metal ($180 x 4 tons = $720) is more than anyone wants to pay for it, so send it off the scrapper, right? We, in this modern age of digital friend's networks and iPod instagrams, have little appreciation for the history of printing, and the offset/digital/internet revolution of 1980 - 2010 has cast the old equipment into the dump.

If the Gods of Printing History prevail, it will avoid the scrapper maw, be relocated hundreds of miles to the west, and will one day print again. It looks like it will be moved exactly 103 years after it landed in Colby ... some 112 years after it was made.

The Cranston drum cylinder press is very similar in design to the Babcock drum cylinder press as well as the original Hoe Press design, going back to the late 1850s. Observe, for example, the Hoe press in the Mark Twain Museum in Nevada:

This Hoe Drum Press was manufactured in the early 1860s.

A Potter Drum Press has classic ornate lines, but is essentially the same design:

According to the International Printing Museum website, we read in regard to the Potter cylinder press that "This typical 'News and Job' press, of the English Napier style, had various manufacturers from the 1860s to about 1910. These drum cylinder presses operated on the single-revolution principle, in that only half the cylinder is utilized for impression while the other half clears the type during the return movement of the bed, hence the large drum-like cylinder. The complete printing cycle takes one revolution of the cylinder, and since the cylinder does not have to be raised to clear the type on the return move, as in a two-revolution press, there is no throw-off mechanism. This early Potter uses a complex of levers and springs to buffer the reversals of the bed. Later models employed air cylinders. Delivery is to the rear of the cylinder, printed-side-down, “bob tail” style. The printed-side-down feature alleviates turning over the sheets for backing-up. Since the cylinder packing was usually of felt, this type of press was not intended for quality work such as the two-revolution presses could provide."

But, I would add, it can be used for quality registration and impression if the packing is of harder tympan material. I'd also add that the "complex of levers and springs to buffer the reversals of the bed" is a bit ambiguously worded. On the Cranston, I've noted that the bed reversal is accomplished through an up-and-down moving gear, under the bed, that interfaces with a two-sided horizotnal gear track under the bed. This up-and-down moving gear (on a drive-shaft) is connected to a fixed horizontal drive shaft through a U-joint. This axle has a small gear and pulley on it, attached by a frame assembly to the side of the press. It's a small gear that engages the slightly larger gear that engages the huge gear that is the same diameter as the drum, and in line with the drum axle. So, from the motor drive axle, the constantly rotating cylinder and the back-and-forth bed movement are synchronized. The key is the up-and-down movement of the axle under the bed, pivoting up-and-down but constantly driven via the U-joint off the main drive axle.

This is a Babcock press, showing the overhead drive pulley system:

If you look at the ornate frame, you can tell it is a Cottrell-Babcock, which is featured in the following piece that appeared in Scientifc American magaizne in 1872:

The Cranston is a late survival of an early drum-cylinder design; it was still commonly used in small-town newspaper offices around the USA through the early years of the 20th century. Incredibly, the Cranston that will be saved was still printing in western Kansas in the late 1970s. I drove right through there, on I-70, with my Dad on our way out to Colorado in 1978. The very early Hoe drum press (1860s), again, defined this design and is very similar in basic design to the Cranston drum press that I plan to save:

There is an 1870s Babcock drum cylinder operating and printing here: The Babcocks are better known, a bit better dsigned, but more common than the Cranston. There's a Babcock in Wyoming, one in Arkansas, one in Iowa. I know of a Cranston drum-cylinder in Houston and one near Boston. Here is the Cranston in Houston:

The American Printer, March 1900 (Volume 30) contains the following news item:

This is very significant in terms of dating the manufacture of the Cranston drum press in Colby, Kansas. This Kansas press has "Palmyra, NY" emblazoned in metal imprint on its side, which means it was made there. But, according to the above news item, it would therefore have to have been made after 1900. One wonders how long these old designs were still being made after 1900. The two-revolution presses were already considered better. The Cranston was modelled on the old Hoe design going back to the 1860s. It was a basic, simple, press. A massive automated proof press (not TOO automated, since you had to hand-feed the paper). But it could print a huge form, a 27 " x 44" area on 32 x 48 paper. This area can print 12 pages of 8.5 x 11" size, which comprises 2 "pages" in a standard book format. That's 24 pages. Turn the sheet over, print the other side, that's another 24 pages. So each sheet, with two impressions, equals 48 pages. If you set, impose, and print three sheets on both sides, you'd get your 144-page book. Print three thousand sheets of each, both sides (the average run of a circa 1900 newspaper), and you have 3000 letterpress books. Hand bind them in lots of 100 and sell them for $125 a piece. Total gross = $375,000. Just a thought.

John Major Jenkins, printer and author
Oak Root Press ۰ Acorn Anchor book Arts Studio


A gallery of old newspaper presses, mostly Babcock and mostly single-revolution big drum style:

Taylor press (above) from Vermillion Ohio. See discussion below.

This picture (above) is from Central City, taken by noted photographer Myron Wood in 1962. It depicts a Taylor flatbed press and on the back of the photo it is written that it is from the "Tri-Weekly Miners Register." This was a historical paper that was published only in 1862-63, as far as I can tell. So the old shop seems to have still been in existence in 1962, when Wood took this photo. A bit of a mystery here --- does the shop still exist? Where was it? What happened to it? If so much attention preserved it into the 1960s, what forces would plow it under after that?

This is a two-rev press (above)

This is a Babcock Optimus (above). I actually "own" a Babcock Optimus, because I won it for pocket change at an online auction, but it is a big one and is stuck in a building in Columbus, Kansas (far southeast corner of the state). Not sure what to do with it, or how to rescue it, but here it is:

Sadly, many of the old historic printing presses end up in a junk pile:

Update. November 23, 2012. Last Saturday did not work out for the pick up date. But tomorrow does! And it looks to be a perfect Colorado late-November day to do it. We are no doubt coming in just under the wire as winter usually hits hard by the first few days of December. But late Fall can be beautiful until then. And tomorrow is going to be sunny, dry, and warm. Upper 60s in Denver. On the high plains of eastern Colorado/Western Kansas, 60 degrees on a sunny day feels sweet. I spent six hours at Don's place today, getting the trailer ready. He welded support brackets for a new power winch, which will certainly make the job easier. His home-built two-axle trailer has hauled 13,000 pounds. We have two pallet movers with us --- my 3-ton Crown and Don's. (The Ctranston weighs about four tons, 8000 pounds.) I cut five 2-inch rollers from a pipe, prepared other things and we are, basically, over prepared for various contingencies. The truck is loaded, and ready to go. We will leave at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning. Me and my good friend Don Hildred, spending a day moving heavy antique printing equipment, 290 miles from Fort Collins. 10 miles to the gallon, deisel. We plan to load in 1 - 2 hours. We may be home before dark.

Then, where will the Cranston go? Some heroic reconfiguring will be necessary if it is to go into my Acorn Anchor Book Arts shop in Fort Collins, but I've done the measurements and it could be done. I'll have a few weeks to figure it out. Otherwise, it gets placed and tarped on my double-wide concrete driveway in Windsor, probably for the entire winter until a better situation arises.

Anyway, tomorrow is moving day. Nine hours in the truck, driving. Two hours of hard work. Home by 9 p.m., and a beer waiting. The Cranston will live and print again, after a 30-year sleep. The 13th-Baktun completion is 28 days away.

Moving Day. November 24

Don and I left Fort Collins at 6:25 a.m. We arrived at the museum in Colby exactly at 12 noon (lost an hour due to time change in Kansas). Chris and four volunteers met us. A search for the missing drive-assembly commenced, but it could not be located anywhere. We pushed the Cranston on rollers to the outer door:

Luckily, there was a 4 inch lip at the edge of the door, and the pallet lifter fit perfectly under the front edge of the press. The other pallet lifter was positioned under the far edge of the press by tipping the press forward on 4 x 4s. So, it was ready to winch onto the trailer:

This operation was greatly assisted by the electric winch Don had installed the day before. See movie here.

The loading took two hours. Chris gave me a folder of newspapers and a few other pieces of info. The press was donated to the museum in 1974 by the Phillips family, and it was stated that all presses were in working order. The Phillips family, father and son and grandson, were running the Colby Free Press in the 1930s. Three other editions of the newspaper from 1936 were given to me, which were printed on the Cranston, which at that time had been the Colby printing press for 27 years. After chaining down the press and loading the motor, stairs, and other parts, we headed west on I-70. We stopped in Burlington, Colorado for lunch.

At a cautious 60 m.p.h. on the way back, it took almost five hours but the weather was beautiful all the way home, and driving through Denver on the 270 short cut was a breeze. Total miles driven = 565.

Mission accomplished! 7:00 p.m. A 13-hour day, mostly spent driving. Thanks to Don H. and his expertise, the Cranston was saved and has a new home (however, we still need to unload it ... somewhere). It was unfortunate that the drive assembly part did not show up. Perhaps it will, somewhere, but it is more likely lost forever. The challenge of building a replacement is not insurmountable. It will require a properly sized gear, a shaft, a U-joint, pulley, flywheel, and mounting frame. Additional things needed: feed-board with registration guide. Gear track on top needs to be fixed (welded) and the end of the bed track underneath needs repair.

Photos of the Colby Free Press printing office, around 1900

I received a few photos from Chris. Two of them show glimpses of various presses, but none show the Cranston. These two photos both might pre-date 1909, when the Cranston was acquired:

This one (above) probably predates the one below, because the ceiling is in better condition. The press gear on the lower right could very well be the Chandler & Price 14 x 22, which I dated by serial number to 1889 and which remains at the museum. This photo could be from the 1890s or early 1900s.

The Colby Free Press

This photo (above) may also show the 14 x 22, behind the man on the left. There is a Linotype behind the man on the right. The Cranston might be in the far back of the room, where one can make out what may be the distinctive paper delivery cam, but the perspective doesn't seem right; I'd think the feedboards would be higher up and quite visible behind the men. The Cranston seems to have evaded being photographed.

The Cranston newspaper press is the latest addition to the Fort Collins Letterpress Museum and Printing Office. Restoration projects are ongoing and are funded through donations from members, demonstrations and workshops, other letterpress enthusiasts, and local community members and businesses.

Update. October 16, 2013

Almost a year has elapsed since acquiring the Cranston. Many life challenges have asserted themselves. The Cranston remains where it was stored last year. In early 2013 I did some detective work and tracked down a Potter newspaper press in Georgetown, Colorado. It is, indeed, the historic press installed at the Georgetown Courier in 1880. I looked at it in May, made an offer, but it far lower than the owners were expecting.

Just recently, I learned of another Cranston drum-cylinder press, this one in North Dakota. The pictures provided are iconic, showing a sad and lonely old press sitting in a dilapidated building on the verge of falling to pieces around it:

This Cranston is clearly an earlier model, compared to the one I acquired last year in Colby, Kansas. You can see that the frame castings are more ornate and slightly less robust. I'd guess 1880s. It may be a smaller press, too. Unfortunately, the very same drive-assembly that is missing on my Cranston is also missing on this Cranston. That makes putting the press back into service extremely difficult, and salvaging the press a fool's errand. It's possible that the assembly is somewhere nearby in the building, cast aside, perhaps broken. The unit would have a hand-crank wheel for moving the bed, geared down to make it easier. An idea I've had is to design an assembly with the appropriate gear and gear-box, bolted to the allotted space on the side of the press, but belted to a hand crank wheel mounted to the back side of the press. It then becomes a hand-crank newspaper press. The fate of this Cranston is uncertain; it may end up in a museum nearby.