HISTORY OF JACOB PERKINS IN THE PRINTING INDUSTRY
THE GENIUS OF JACOB PERKINS
Printing played an important part in the fortunes of Baker Perkins since Jacob Perkins first became involved in the development of steel plates for banknote printing. Born in 1766, Jacob was apprenticed at the age of 12 to a goldsmith from whom he learned the art of engraving, reaching such a level of expertise that he was commissioned to produce the dies for the funeral medals issued at the death of George Washington in 1799. The aftermath of the American War of Independence inevitably led to a breakdown in the monetary system. Between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the founding of the US Mint in 1792, a lack of trust in the new monetary system meant that people were forced to resort to barter, foreign paper money and specie no longer circulated and whilst a few private banks issued notes, these were so poorly printed that they could be copied by any competent engraver. Jacob Perkins saw this as an opportunity and became a security printer and, after years of experiments, achieved great success.
At that time the usual method of printing security documents was from engraved copper plates but copper, being a soft metal, meant that the plates soon became worn, requiring re-engraving and, as even a highly skilled craftsman cannot precisely duplicate his own work, the fundamental need for 'absolute sameness' could not be met. After experimenting with iron plates - which also suffered from wear problems - Jacob developed the use of steel engravings and from 1803 onwards printed notes using a multiplicity of complex dies, each interlocking precisely with its neighbours when assembled as a single plate. Each note might require up to 64 dies, each carrying an elaborate motive that was part of the total design, any misalignment between the dies being immediately detectable. Soon, his process was improved further by hardening of the steel dies and plates, making possible long runs of identical documents. The annealing of steel to soften it, followed by cementation to harden the surface was a long accepted engineering practice but Jacob must take the credit for adapting the process to such flat and delicate surfaces.
The publication of a booklet in 1806 describing his experiments in security printing was followed in 1809 by the passing by the State legislature of the Massachusetts Banking Act. This enforced the use of Perkins' processes for the printing of all banknotes in the State, giving Jacob's firm - his brother Abraham having been taken into partnership - a virtual monopoly for the printing of banknotes in the State of Massachusetts. As was usual, Jacob soon left affairs of business to Abraham while he pursued other inventive interests. He began a business association with an engraver, Gideon Fairman, whose ability as a master craftsman fitted well with Jacob's skill as an engineer. Together they published in 1810 what are believed to be the first plate-printed books in the USA.
PRINTING FROM ENGRAVED PLATES, AS DISTINCT FROM MOVEABLE TYPE, HAS BEEN A SEPARATE TRADE FOR THREE HUNDRED YEARS. IN PLATE PRINTING THE ENGRAVER MARKS THE SURFACE OF A POLISHED METAL PLATE WITH A SHARP TOOL. INK IS FORCED INTO THESE SCRATCHES BY THE PRINTER AND THE SURFACE IS WIPED CLEAN, LEAVING INK IN THE INCISION. DAMP PAPER IS THEN LAID ON THE PLATE AND, UNDER PRESSURE, THE INK IS TRANSFERRED FROM THE LINES INCISED INTO THE PLATE ON TO THE SURFACE OF THE PAPER. THIS PROCESS IS STILL USED FOR FINE ART PRINTS AND FOR SECURITY DOCUMENTS OF ALL KINDS. THEREFORE, FOR JACOB PERKINS, THE PRINTING OF BANKNOTES AND BOOK ILLUSTRATIONS WAS BASICALLY THE SAME THING.
Jacob had come a long way and his multiple dies in hardened steel were a great improvement on what had gone before. However, even steel plates eventually showed signs of wear. He reasoned that if the engraving on a master die could be transferred to as many printing plates as were required, the problem of mass-producing an almost limitless number of identical prints would be solved. He took out a patent in 1813 for a Roller Transfer Press that transferred an image from a hardened master die to a soft steel roller that was subsequently hardened. This hardened roller was than used to imprint the master image onto a printing plate that was in turn hardened.
Having effected a partnership in Fairman, Murray and Draper's business in Philadelphia, Jacob, in conjunction with Murray, obtained patents for a circular matrix printing press and for a press for printing copper and steel engravings. Perkins and his associates were anxious to obtain the contract to print the paper currency for the soon to be established Second National Bank but this was delayed. However, by the summer of 1816 Jacob's plates were accepted by the Federal Government for printing all of the notes of the new National Bank.
In about 1815, Jacob met Asa Spencer, a watchmaker from New London, Connecticut, who had developed a type of geometric lathe for engraving flat, convex and concave surfaces that produced very intricate patterns known as water line engravings. The advantage of this new machine was that, instead of a master die being built up from a number of small dies, a single steel plate, after being engraved, became the master die ready for hardening. By now, Jacob was 50 years old and should have been comfortably off. Sadly, the Second National Bank ran into difficulties and his financial affairs were in such a state that he had to sell most of his patent rights and other interests, leaving other people to reap the rewards of his endeavours.
Fortunately things on the other side of the Atlantic were turning in his favour. A spate of bank note forgery embarrassed the English, Irish and Scottish banks, resulting from the flood of 'stop-gap' paper money needed to replace the gold coinage conserved by the Government to finance the wars against Napoleon. Charles Bagot, the British Minister in Washington had been very impressed with the work produced by the Perkins plates and urged their adoption by the Bank of England. Following the payment of the sum of £5,000, Jacob, accompanied by his colleagues Asa Spencer and Gideon Fairman., a staff of engravers and all necessary machinery, set sail on May 31st 1819 to make the 30 day journey to Liverpool. On arrival in England, Jacob set up business as Steel Plate Engravers with the title of Perkins and Fairman at 29, Austin Friars in the City of London.
The Governor of the Bank of England proved to be against the idea of an American being involved in the printing of his banknotes and, in the event, the Commissioners decided that the Bank of England should continue printing its notes in the old-fashioned way. In the face of this disappointment but despite the very difficult business conditions existing in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars, Jacob decided not to return to the United States and was successful in obtaining the contract to print notes for the Bank of Ireland and other smaller banks.
In December 1819, an engraver to King George III, Charles Heath had joined the partnership and the company moved to 69, Fleet Street and became Perkins, Fairman & Heath. Soon after Fairman relinquished his partnership and the firm changed to Perkins & Heath. In May 1929, Joshua Butters Bacon, who had married Jacob Perkins' second daughter, joined the partnership and it became Perkins and Bacon. Finally, Henry P. Petch, an engraver who had joined the company in 1823 was taken into partnership in 1834 and the company finally became Perkins, Bacon & Petch.
Not surprisingly, Perkins' financial interest in the flourishing business was gradually eroded as his interest increasingly turned to his engineering experiments and by the time that he retired in 1836 at the age of 70 he had few resources to sustain him in his old age. Ironically, three years later when Rowland (Later Sir Rowland) Hill persuaded the British Government to adopt his postal reforms, it was Jacob's old firm - Perkins, Bacon and Petch - that was given the contract to print the world's first adhesive postage stamp.
Henry Corbould made a drawing of Queen Victoria from the Medal struck on her accession to the throne for which Perkins, Bacon and Petch paid him £12.00. A piece of steel 3" square x 9/16" thick was annealed several times to remove the carbon and when completely soft the background was engraved with the aid of the geometric lathe, followed by the engraving of the Queen's head and the inscription "Postage - One Penny". After hardening, the die became harder than it had been originally and 240 impressions were transferred to the printing plate using the Roll Transfer Press. This Master Die 1 was in use from 1840 to 1855 with master Die 2 being used until 1879 - a tribute to the excellence of Jacob Perkins' plate hardening system. It was proved that fully 400,000 imprints could be taken from a single plate without signs of wear. Altogether, over twenty-two thousand million stamps for Great Britain and the Colonies were printed by the Perkins' process during these years.
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The security printing firm Jacob founded in 1819 became a limited company in 1887 run by the grandson of Jacob's old associate, Charles Heath. Jacob's Printing and Engraving building in Newburyport, Mass, has recently undergone a complete refurbishment (Click here). The company was later merged with W.W. Sprague and Co. which in turn became part of the International Metal Box Co.
Jacob Perkins was a prolific inventor and more details of his inventions and patents taken out by Jacob, his son Angier and grandson Loftus Patton will be found in Early Inventions elsewhere on this website. Jacob Perkins died on July 30th 1849 and is buried at Kensal Green, London.
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