William Ged, printer, goldsmith, and the inventor of stereotyping and the 'lost wax' process of metal casting, died on the 19th of October, 1749.
Way back in 1725, the power of the print industry’s workforce to close ranks and exclude innovation that threatened job security was as powerful as it was perceived to be at the time of the ‘Wapping dispute’ in the late 1980s. That modern dispute was a significant turning point in the history of Fleet Street and the newspaper production industry, which had been limping along under poor industrial relations for years. Up until 1986, the print industry’s closed shop had managed to prevent the adoption of new technology that would have reduced the need for labour in the print halls, cut costs and improved production time dramatically. After a year of strikes, the restrictive trade union printing practices associated with the traditional publishing empires had been removed and by 1988, nearly all the national newspapers had abandoned Fleet Street to relocate alongside News International in the Docklands.
In contrast to the ‘Wapping dispute’, the ‘William Ged affair’ of 1725 wasn’t anywhere near as public, nor did it have such far reaching consequences. On that occasion, the power of the print ‘union’ and its ‘Spanish practices’ was enough to set back the march of progress and to almost destroy the man who would single-handedly introduce the new technology. On that historic occasion, the printers won the battle, but their descendants got their comeuppance in Wapping. The term ‘Spanish practices’ or ‘old Spanish customs’ has come to refer to irregular or restrictive practices in favour of workers' interests. However, the earliest recorded use of the term was by Francis Walsingham, Secretary to Queen Elizabeth I in 1584, who used the term to mean “deceitful, perfidious and treacherous” persons. Those arraigned against William Ged fitted that description admirably, although they were far from admirable.
William Ged was born in Edinburgh, in 1690, and grew up to become a successful goldsmith. He was widely known for his innovations and inventions, including the ‘lost wax’ process of metal casting, which is still widely used today for reproducing delicate designs, especially amongst jewellers. In 1725, one of his clients, who was a printer, suggested that it was a bit embarrassing to have to import type from London. At that time there were no type- or letter-founders in Scotland and so nothing loth, Ged set about solving that particular problem. He had the brilliant idea of making printing plates from pages of composited type and it didn’t take him long to find a solution. In fact, he used a solution of gypsum to produce a cast of the entire page of composited type. He then used the cast as a mold to produce solid lead printing plates that could be used to print pages on an ordinary letter-press. Ged had invented stereotyping, which he patented in 1725, and it had all the hallmarks of a wonderful advance for the printing industry. Ged’s process produced a much stronger and more durable plate than was possible hitherto and also negated the need to reset type for subsequent printings.
Ged needed a partner with some capital to help get his invention established and he offered a quarter share to an Edinburgh printer in exchange for funds to establish a stereotype-foundry. That partnership dragged out for a while, but the scurrilous printer reneged on his promises. Ged then met a stationer chappie, William Fenner, up from London for a visit to Edinburgh. Fenner offered to establish a foundry in London, in exchange for a half share in the profits. Ged was kinda caught between a rock and a hard place so he accepted the proffered terms and trotted off to London. Fenner then introduced a type-founder called Thomas James to the partnership, but that geezer was also a bit of a rogue who supplied useless ‘seconds’ – rejects in other words. Now, up to that point, Ged had been the victim of incompetents and chancers, but he was undeterred. He involved the King's printers, who in turn, consulted their type-founder, but that mannie, realising the potential impact of Ged’s method, promptly denied that it was of use ‘in any way, shape or form’ and tried to convince the King’s men that Ged was a charlatan. Cue significant opposition from the printers whose jobs depended on the old processes.
In the meantime, Ged, who was made of stern stuff, proposed a wager to prove his mettle. He bet he could produce a stereotype from a page in type of the Bible and that he could do it far quicker than any crooked type-founder. The contest was to have lasted eight days, but by the end of the first, Ged had returned in triumph with three printed copies of the Bible text. As a result, his invention received universal praise, but universal adoption was a different matter. Through the Earl of Macclesfield, Ged and his partners got a print contract from the University of Cambridge to print Bibles and Common Prayer Books, but he hadn’t counted on the ‘Spanish practices’ of the treacherous printers he encountered. Like his incompetent partner, the letter-founders provided imperfect type and with the compositors, it was a case of one step forward, two steps back. No sooner had they fixed one problem, than they created half a dozen more. The pressmen were also in on the conspiracy and took a hammer to the odd letter or ten. Ged’s credibility suffered and his plates ended up in the foundry, where they were melted down and recast.
Financially ruined, poor Ged returned to Edinburgh, where his friends clubbed together and between them they managed to fund the production of a single volume. That edition of the works of the Roman historian, Sallustius, appeared in 1736, eleven years after Ged’s invention was patented. It was presented to the Faculty of Advocates in 1740. Eight years later, the Dean and Faculty “ordained their Treasurer to pay to the said William Ged ten guineas” as he had been “reduced to hard Circumstances, and yrfore obliged to apply to the Faculty for such gratification as to them should seem meet.” The ‘Sallust’ was reissued in 1744 and two editions of Henry Scougal’s ‘The Life of God’ were produced from Ged’s surviving stereotype plates in 1742. Thanks to prejudiced and ignorant printers, William Ged’s 1725 invention of stereotyping wasn’t widely adopted until long after his death, when it was reintroduced and under a separate patent taken out by Alexander Tilloch and Andrew Foulis in 1784. William Ged died in poverty, in Leith, on the 19th of October, 1749. Later, as reported by Ged's daughter, it transpired that he had repeated offers from the Dutch, either to go to Holland or to sell his invention, but out of patriotic motives, he had refused.