Poll Position

By | November 7, 2016

We’re in the home stretch, folks—The Election That Won’t End is finally on its last legs. Pundits have referred to this year’s contest as the “Twitter election,” for better or worse, but that shouldn’t be surprising. New communications technologies—even though Twitter isn’t really all that new at this point—have always played roles in politics, and indeed the first “modern” Presidential campaign was enabled by print. Not that print was a new technology at the time—that time being 1840—but shortly before that campaign, printing had seen its first major technological advances since Gutenberg.

To identify these changes, we’ll start down in some English mines, and quickly ascend to an abandoned German monastery.

In the late 17th century, British mining operations had kicked into high. Trouble was, a lot of mines were located along the coast, and in Cornwall, mines even extended under the sea some distance offshore. This meant that mines flooded rather routinely, so there was a pressing need for drainage. Enter Thomas Savery, who had built a drainage pump in the hope of solving the problem of massively moist miners. Savery—who called his pump the “Miner’s Friend”—had based his design on the work of a Frenchman, Denis Papin, who had invented a pump that was powered by gunpowder, although he later wisely substituted steam power. Savery made a few alterations to Papin’s pump, and soon had the Miner’s Friend. Alas, it was a fickle friend; when put into actual operation, it couldn’t withstand the high heat and pressure and fell apart.

Now enter an ironworker named Thomas Newcomen, who tweaked the Savery pump to create his own “Newcomen engine.” It took a few tries, but soon his engine worked, was a hit, and within a decade was being used in mines throughout Europe.

Flash forward nearly half a century to 1763, and a scale model of the Newcomen engine is owned by Glasgow University in Scotland. At one point, it broke down, and the resident repairman was tasked with fixing it. In the course of fixing it, he realized that it was not as efficient as it could be. He added an extra cylinder and made some other tweaks, and it is for this that the repairman, James Watt, is acknowledged as the inventor of the steam engine and all that it led to.

It took a while, but steam power had transformed—well, everything. Which brings us to Oberzell Monastery in Germany. It had been abandoned some years earlier, and it seemed just the right site for inventor Friedrich Koenig to set up shop. Koenig was born in 1774 to a farming family, but had apprenticed as a printer. He matriculated at Leipzig University, and began to dedicate his researches to eliminating what he called the “horse-work” from printing. In other words, make it more of an automated process. His first attempt was in 1803–04, when he designed what he called the Suhl(er) press, which was really just a powered hand press. It’s not known if he actually built one, but regardless, German printers were not warm to the idea so Koenig went abroad to try his luck with the British.

He had some nibbles and some business agreements, but, long story short, he eventually hooked up with an old friend from Germany, Andreas Bauer. The two pooled their ideas and began working on what would become the first steam-powered printing press. It was patented on March 29, 1810, and a year later it was first used to print 3,000 copies of a portion of the Annual Register, the first book, Koenig claimed, to be printed at least in part by a machine. The press had a top speed of about 400 impressions an hour—which was a bit of an improvement over the old hand press. Koenig and Bauer continued development, and in 1812 began work on a newspaper version of the press. It took some doing—not least because once newspaper pressmen got wind of a steam-powered press they threatened Koenig’s life—but in the wee small hours of November 29, 1814, the first newspaper ever printed on a steam-powered press was produced at a speed of (it was claimed) 1,100 single-sided sheets per hour.

Koenig made a few more improvements, took out more patents, but after falling out with a British business partner who felt he owned all the rights to the machine, he and Bauer fled in discouragement back to Germany. In 1817, Koenig and Bauer—and, yes, they are the “K” and the “B” of the company that would one day be called, and is still called today, “KBA”—bought the Oberzell Monastery near Würzburg and began development of steam-powered presses. They had difficulty finding skilled artisans, alas, and manufacturing was a struggle. Koenig also had a vision of a rotary press, but he died in 1833 before he could realize that dream.

Still, the steam-powered printing press, particularly the newspaper configuration, would change media and politics in ways that we are still recovering from today. The automation and, more importantly, the speed made printing more economical to produce—and thus to buy. As a result, the early 19th century saw the explosion of what would be called the “penny press,” newspapers that sold for a penny (most other papers sold for about six cents a copy). On July 24, 1830, Lynde M. Walter launched the Boston Transcript, the first “penny press” newspaper. Its primary topics were, naively enough, literature and theater. That would not last.

The real penny press pioneer was Benjamin Day, who launched the New York Sun in 1833. Day was a mere slip of a lad (by today’s standards anyway) at 23, and his Sun was the first to use an advertising- rather than subscription-based revenue model. He also introduced to America the “London Plan” whereby he sold the papers in batches of 100 to newsboys who would them sell them on the street (whether they ever really yelled “Extra! Extra!” is open to debate). Day soon became the most important publisher of his, well, day, and not only because of his business acumen. It was also because he chose to publish stories that today would be considered “tabloid” journalism—even though, like other penny press papers, the Sun was physically a broadsheet and not tabloid size. One of his most infamous stories was written by Richard Adams Locke and published in 1835. It was an ostensibly serious report about life that had supposedly been found on the moon. (Some years later, Edgar Allan Poe claimed it had been plagiarized from him.) Anyway, the penny press quickly went for the sensationalistic and lurid.

It wasn’t long before the press became active in politics. Newspapers had always been politically active, at least since the founding of the United States. Individual papers were highly partisan and were more often than not official political party organs. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the media was supposed to be unbiased, at least in theory.

We rightly blanch at the tenor of political debate today, but if you look back at the history of political campaigns, they have only very rarely been based on high-minded discussion of important issues. The campaign of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams still could win awards for the ugliest and nastiest Presidential campaign in history—and they were two Founding Fathers, supposed children of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, and yet they couldn’t stay out of the mire.

The first more or less modern Presidential campaign was the 1840 contest between Democrat Martin Van Buren, the incumbent President seeking a second term, and Whig William Henry Harrison, a decorated general who had won the Battle of Tippecanoe, although one of the Democrats’ ploys was to question whether he really played an important role in the battle. (It was the precursor of what in 2004 would come to be called “swiftboating.” Some things never change.)

The Harrison campaign had a catchy slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (John Tyler was Harrison’s running mate, which he would come to regret). This was the “Log Cabin and Cider” campaign, where Harrison was depicted as being a rural man of the people, easily at home in a simple log cabin drinking hard cider and Van Buren was a foppish and pampered dandy. Actually, though, Harrison was a wealthy landowner, scion of one of the “First Families” of Virginia, where his father had been governor and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was Van Buren who had grown up in penury in upstate New York as the son of a tavernkeeper.

It was one of the first mass media campaigns; printing presses were physically part of campaign rallies. The Whigs—they were a new party at the time—launched Log Cabin newspapers, and it was the first campaign to feature banners, merchandise, and even songs; a popular item during the campaign was the Harrison and Log Cabin Songbook. Whigs would lug printing presses down the street during parades and print off copies of song sheets so people could sing along with anti-Van Buren ditties, such as:

What has caused the great commotion, motion, motion

Our country through?

It’s the ball a-rolling on, on

For Tippecanoe and Tyler too

Some of this took Van Buren and company by surprise; Van Buren was a highly experienced political manipulator at the time and was instrumental in establishing the norms of party politics, norms that continue to this day.

Still, no one could resist a good song, and Harrison and Tyler won the election. Alas, as we all likely recall, Harrison died a month after Inauguration Day, and Tyler—soon to be labeled “His Accidency”—would become the first sitting Vice President to become President.

So for the next few days, until our current campaign ends, I’ll be hiding down in a mine. Someone fetch me a Miner’s Friend.



James Burke, Connections, Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1978, p. 170–174.

John Dickerson, Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History, New York: Twelve, 2016, p. 334.

Bill Elligett, “Koenig: his first Powered Printing Machines 1803–1818,” Letterpress Printing, http://letterpressprinting.com.au/page58.htm.

“Friedrich Koenig’s invention changed the media world,” KBA, November 27, 2014, http://www2.kba.com/cs/tiskove-zpravy/detail/article/friedrich-koenigs-invention-changed-the-media-world.

Alan Kingsbury, “William Henry Harrison, Martin Van Buren, and the Birth of the Modern Political Campaign,” US News & World Report, January 17, 2008, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/01/17/the-presidency-was-his-for-a-song.

“Centenary of Friedrich Koenig, 1774–1833,” Nature, 131, 51-52 (14 January 1933), http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v131/n3298/abs/131051d0.html.

“Benjamin Day (publisher),” Wikipedia, last modified on October 23, 2016, retrieved October 31, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Day_(publisher).

“Penny Press,” Wikipedia, last modified on March 19, 2016, retrieved October 31, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_press.

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