Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860


With the overwhelming amount of new information that bombards us each day, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a time when the widespread availability of the printed word was a novelty. In early nineteenth-century Britain, print was not novel—Gutenberg’s printing press had been around for nearly four centuries—but printed matter was still a rare and relatively expensive luxury. All this changed, however, as publishers began employing new technologies to astounding effect, mass-producing instructive and educational...

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Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860

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With the overwhelming amount of new information that bombards us each day, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a time when the widespread availability of the printed word was a novelty. In early nineteenth-century Britain, print was not novel—Gutenberg’s printing press had been around for nearly four centuries—but printed matter was still a rare and relatively expensive luxury. All this changed, however, as publishers began employing new technologies to astounding effect, mass-producing instructive and educational books and magazines and revolutionizing how knowledge was disseminated to the general public.

In Steam-Powered Knowledge, Aileen Fyfe explores the activities of William Chambers and the W. & R. Chambers publishing firm during its formative years, documenting for the first time how new technologies were integrated into existing business systems. Chambers was one of the first publishers to abandon traditional skills associated with hand printing, instead favoring the latest innovations in printing processes and machinery: machine-made paper, stereotyping, and, especially, printing machines driven by steam power. The mid-nineteenth century also witnessed dramatic advances in transportation, and Chambers used proliferating railway networks and steamship routes to speed up communication and distribution. As a result, his high-tech publishing firm became an exemplar of commercial success by 1850 and outlived all of its rivals in the business of cheap instructive print. Fyfe follows Chambers’s journey from small-time bookseller and self-trained hand-press printer to wealthy and successful publisher of popular educational books on both sides of the Atlantic, demonstrating along the way the profound effects of his and his fellow publishers’ willingness, or unwillingness, to incorporate these technological innovations into their businesses.

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Editorial Reviews

David Finkelstein
“A richly detailed, comprehensive exploration of the centrality of print as a medium for the transmission of knowledge in the Victorian period, and of the pioneering Edinburgh publishers whose harnessing of new steam-powered technology revolutionized print for the masses. Aileen Fyfe expertly weaves together social, cultural, political, and commercial commentary to paint a fascinating picture of the battle to provide cheap literature for a mass readership, and of the Chambers brothers’ adoption of cutting-edge printing processes and techniques to create a Victorian publishing empire. The work will surely become required reading for those wishing to understand the interaction between nineteenth-century print culture production, the Industrial Revolution, technological innovation, and a working-class readership.”
Graeme Gooday
Steam-Powered Knowledge provides a fresh historical vision of book learning in transatlantic transit before the era of oceanic telecommunications. Mapping the coevolution of the Chambers publishing house with the rise of the steam-powered press, Fyfe’s original interpretation offers readers a welcome new grasp of how print culture became central to the globalization of knowledge.”
James A. Secord
“‘Whirr! . . . Whizz! . . . Rattle! . . . Shock! . . . Bur- r- r!’ Charles Dickens was writing about train travel, but the noisy impact of the machine was equally pervasive in cheap publishing and printing during the early industrial era. In this pioneering study, Aileen Fyfe offers a superbly accessible guide to the complex and often risky business of providing information to newly literate readers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Michael Winship
Steam-Powered Knowledge provides an excellent account of the publishing activities of William and Robert Chambers of Edinburgh, drawing extensively on that firm’s surviving business archives and publications. Writing in a clear and lively manner, Aileen Fyfe makes a strong case for the importance of the firm as a pioneer in the use of industrial methods of book production and as a crusader for the use of print for the instruction of the working classes.”—Michael Winship, University of Texas at Austin


Times Literary Supplement
“[A] well-researched and well-written book. . . . William Chambers himself would have been proud of the production values of this book; it is well edited and printed, and handsomely bound in a manner that sacrifices none of its functional sturdiness.”
Reviews in History - Iain Watts
“The book is clearly and elegantly written, with short punchy chapters delivering a clearly-framed succession of points through the unpacking of particular episodes drawn from the rich resources of the Chambers archives. Those who choose to read it in its ink-and-paper manifestation will have the benefit of Chicago University Press’s typically fine production values and typography, of which, no doubt William Chambers would have been proud. . . . Whatever the future of print may be, Steam-Powered Knowledge is a valuable and lively account of the history of the Chambers firm as situated within British society and culture, and constitutes a fine contribution to the wider histories of Victorian publishing and technology.”
American Historical Review - John Feather
“This is an important book. It sheds new light on a significant aspect of the history of the book trade in both the United Kingdom and the United States at a transformative moment in their respective histories. It is well written and excellently produced. I recommend it without hesitation.”
Metascience - Leslie Howsam
“Fyfe shows her deep knowledge of the material, and she writes with grace and elegance. Her publishers, the University of Chicago Press, have cooperated by producing a good-looking book, well-illustrated with reproductions from the Chambers’ publications.”
Business History Review - Terry S. Reynolds
“Fyfe has produced a well-researched, well-written account of how one of the great Victorian publishing houses made cheap printed matter accessible to all classes. By describing how and why and in what contexts W. & R. Chambers adopted and adapted to new technology, Fyfe has filled an important gap in the history of the publishing industry.”
Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society
“This is an important study of William Chambers and W. & R. Chambers at a time of changes in the Scottish and wider book trades in the mid-nineteenth century. It fills gaps in the history of printing technology, and in our knowledge of the development of cheap print.”
Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 - John O. Jordan

“Based on extensive archival research and written in lively, accessible prose, Fyfe’s study provides an excellent overview of the early Victorian publishing world together with a detailed look at the work of one influential and innovative practitioner.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226276519
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Aileen Fyfe is lecturer in modern British history at the University of St Andrews, United Kingdom. She is the author of Science and Salvation and coeditor of Science in the Marketplace, both published by the University of Chicago Press, and the editor of Science for Children.

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Read an Excerpt

Steam-Powered Knowledge



Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-27651-9

Chapter One

W. & R. Chambers and the Market for Print

William Chambers and his younger brother Robert grew up in the historic town of Peebles, about twenty-five miles south of Edinburgh. Robert later described his hometown as "neat and agreeable" but with a "decidedly dull aspect." Their father, James, had been a handloom weaver, but never settled successfully to another occupation after the arrival of powered looms. William left home at the age of fourteen to begin an apprenticeship with an Edinburgh bookseller. Soon afterward, the whole family moved to Edinburgh, where Robert continued his schooling. James Chambers subsequently moved his family again, but after he lost another job, Robert's education had to stop, and the family gave up their hopes that he might go to the university and train for a profession. The well-being of the younger children now depended on their thrifty mother, but William and Robert were old enough to fend for themselves.

William was coming toward the end of his apprenticeship, but sixteen-year-old Robert was left in an awkward position: too old to begin an apprenticeship, but untrained for a profession. After Robert spent unsatisfactory spells as a teacher and a clerk, William suggested that he might be able to do something modest in bookselling. Robert rented tiny premises on Leith Walk, the main road from Edinburgh to the port of Leith. Lacking the capital to stock a shop, he acquired all of the family's books (except the seventeenth-century Bible), and displayed them on a stall outside. Leith Walk was where William himself chose to set up shop when he finished his apprenticeship the next year, though he could afford slightly better premises and had good connections in the book trade. By 1820, both brothers were booksellers, just a few hundred yards apart.

The brothers used the dead time in their shops to pursue other interests; William bought and began to use his press, and Robert began to write about the history of Edinburgh. In October 1821, the brothers embarked on an ambitious joint project: a sixteen-page periodical miscellany called the Kaleidoscope: or Edinburgh Literary Amusement, which they planned to issue every fortnight and to sell for 3d. Robert wrote the content, while William worked long into the night doing the printing, folding, and stitching. Their younger brother James was brought in to help with the printing, but it was a Herculean task. According to William, the Kaleidoscope sold well enough to cover its expenses, but—as with his Songs of Robert Burns—there was no remuneration for the substantial labor involved. After seven issues, the brothers admitted defeat, and the last Kaleidoscope appeared on January 12, 1822. Yet, it was not a total waste of time. As William later said, it was "a trial of one's wings," which would encourage them "to higher flights in more favourable times and circumstances."

William and Robert Chambers were always very conscious of having made their own way in the world. They would become major players in the Edinburgh book trade and substantial employers in their own right, but both brothers—and especially William—saw themselves as self-made men, and this motivated a deep commitment to education, instruction, and self-improvement. All of the publications of W. & R. Chambers—from the Chambers's Journal on which the firm was founded, to the instructive pamphlets, textbooks, and standard reference works that followed—were dedicated to the cause of helping other people make the transition from daily struggle to adequacy, as they themselves had done. During the first half of the nineteenth century, literacy skills were extending to shop boys, tailors, carpenters, and even factory workers, but most books and magazines were far too expensive for such people—or even clerks and schoolteachers—to purchase. The Chambers brothers were among the small number of younger publishers who focused on the needs of readers with only a basic education and very limited spare cash.

War and Taxation

The British political situation had created a rather difficult atmosphere for those interested in education and information in the early nineteenth century. Britain had been at war with France until 1815, with her armies campaigning abroad and civilians at home kept alert by fears of invasion. Restrictions on the circulation of treasonable, seditious, or militarily sensitive information are not unexpected during wartime, but after the war, the restrictions actually increased. Napoleon's armies were no longer a threat, but the British ruling classes saw danger in the possible influence of French political ideas on radicals, demagogues, and the uneducated masses. Nobody could forget that the fragile constitutional monarchy produced by the French Revolution had fallen apart in months of terrible bloodshed in 1793– 94. Although blame could certainly be placed on the absolutist, allegedly corrupt, and certainly bankrupt reign of Louis XVI—and here the British congratulated themselves that their monarch was constrained by parliament—the Revolution and its aftermath were widely seen as a failed attempt to put philosophical ideas about government, representation, and religion into action.

Successive British governments were determined to restrict such radical political ideas from circulating orally or in print. Thomas Paine was found guilty of seditious libel, and the second part of his Rights of Man (1792) was suppressed. Paine escaped to France, but in 1793, a young Glasgow lawyer, Thomas Muir, was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Australia for making speeches and circulating seditious publications, including the Rights of Man. Paine and Muir had both called for a reform of the political system, and despite being temporarily quieted by wartime repression, demands for wider political representation did not go away. In a system in which the only voters were those males who owned substantial property and were members of the established church—which was barely 2 percent of the population—an extension to the franchise would benefit large numbers of middle-class and professional men. Conservative fears arose from the possibility that the working classes too might seek political power, and the events in France seemed conclusive demonstration of what a disaster that would be.

The extent of the continuing political tensions in Britain became apparent in August 1819, four years after Waterloo. A crowd of sixty thousand had gathered for a political rally on St. Peter's Fields, in Manchester, and the local authorities overreacted. They sent in armed, mounted troops, and around five hundred people were injured and at least eleven were killed. Less fatally, existing laws against treason, sedition, and blasphemy allowed action against anyone who made speeches or wrote pamphlets (or printed or distributed them) that promoted, or even hinted at, political or religious reforms. The use of these laws affected ideas of all varieties, not just the overtly political: surgeon William Lawrence's Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man (1819) was condemned as blasphemous.

The most significant restriction on the circulation of knowledge was a group of taxes on printed matter. These "taxes on knowledge" were routinely blamed for the paucity of cheap print in Britain and were continually attacked by liberal reformers from the 1830s onward. They had the effect of restricting all forms of printed knowledge—from philosophy to botany, from the newest novel to the latest news—to that small circle of affluent readers for whom an additional penny or two made little difference. These taxes posed a real challenge to William Chambers's ambitions to provide cheap educational publications.

The most pervasive of the taxes was on paper, where 3d. was added to the cost of every pound (weight) of paper, whether for printing, covering, or wrapping. The tax weighed particularly heavily on cheap publications, where the profit margins were so slight that they could be eroded by even a fraction of a penny in tax, and their publishers argued that abolishing the paper tax could mean the difference between life and death for their low-priced publications. In 1832, Chambers's Journal informed its readers that a tenth of its cover price was tax, and the following year, it announced that its readers were generating £1,600 a year for the Treasury. Years later, Chambers would complain that one of the company's best-selling works (it had sold over 80,000 copies) had to be abandoned because the £6,220 of tax swallowed the profits. London publisher Charles Knight had the same problem. But the paper tax would be the last of the taxes on knowledge to fall: it was halved in 1836, but not finally repealed until 1861.

The other taxes on knowledge were more limited in their application. The tax on newspaper and periodical advertisements added a massive 3s.6d. to their actual cost. This placed advertising beyond the reach of most small businesses and individuals, and limited the revenue available to newspaper and periodical publishers. This advertisement tax was reduced to 1s.6d. in 1833 and repealed in 1853. A further tax was levied on the very act of conveying news. This had the intriguing effect of making a legal distinction between general knowledge and current affairs, with the latter being taxed in an attempt to limit the spread of political information. All newspapers had to pay this "stamp duty," which increased the price of each copy by 4d. (1d. from 1836; repealed in 1855). It was thus impossible to sell a newspaper for less than 5d. for most of the first half of the nineteenth century, and at this price, circulations were low. The shilling Literary Gazette sold about 4,000 copies weekly, while in 1830, the Times (then a biweekly) reached only 11,000. When William Cobbett launched a pamphlet version of his Political Register in 1816, selling it at 2d. rather than the 6d. price of the regular stamped edition, he found 50,000 readers—but the Register was swiftly closed down by a government that feared that the masses might imitate the revolutionary and regicidal French if they were encouraged to become politically aware. Editors of illegal newspapers, who printed on unstamped paper and sold at a penny or two, were being prosecuted and gaoled right into the 1840s.

In this context, starting a cheap periodical could be seen as a radical political statement. Those who experimented with cheap instructive magazines in the 1820s and 1830s were careful to avoid political or controversial content. They did not want to go to gaol, but they also needed a legitimate means of avoiding the newspaper stamp, which would have forced their prices up. Chambers's Kaleidoscope was one of many new (and equally short-lived) periodicals that sprang up across Britain in the early 1820s in response to the expanded market for print created by the evangelical education charities. The Kaleidoscope was a miscellany of poetry, sketches of authors, historical tales, and musing or satirical essays. Similarly, Charles Knight's first attempt at a cheap instructive magazine, the Plain Englishman—which ran monthly from 1820– 22—offered "intellectual food of the best quality" but avoided news. One of the most successful of the early cheap magazines was the weekly Mirror of Literature, launched in London by John Limbird in 1822 and sold at 2d. In contrast to Chambers's Kaleidoscope, the Mirror's backers had more experience and resources. The Mirror relied heavily on reprinting excerpts from the more expensive periodicals—an easy and cheap way to generate copy—and was put together by a full-time editor. It was printed by a regular print shop and drew on the skills of artists and wood engravers for its innovative incorporation of illustrations into a cheap periodical. Unlike its contemporaries, the Mirror was still running fifteen years later.

In summer 1851, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune who was visiting Britain for the Great Exhibition, delighted repeal campaigners by giving evidence about American newspaper circulations and readerships to the Parliamentary Select Committee on the newspaper stamp. The highest-selling newspaper in Britain at the time was the Times, now a daily costing 4d. with a circulation of 38,000. Although selling eight times as many as its nearest rival, the Morning Advertiser, this was nothing to boast about compared with Greeley's Tribune, whose weekly edition routinely sold over 50,000 copies. New York, with a population barely a fifth that of London, nevertheless consumed more than twice as many newspapers every day. In such figures, British campaigners saw the benefits of no stamp duty, no paper duty, and no advertisement tax. The subsequent repeal of the newspaper stamp in 1855 was a victory for the increasingly vocal and active group of campaigners, publishers (including Robert and William Chambers and Charles Knight), and authors who had formed themselves into an Association for Promoting the Repeal of All the Taxes on Knowledge. By 1861, the last of the taxes was repealed; and it was the removal of the paper tax, perhaps more than that of the stamp duty, that ushered in the immense growth in numbers of newspapers and their circulations that Greeley had predicted.

Trade Practice and Philanthropic Duty

The taxes on knowledge were undoubtedly part of the reason for the paucity of extremely cheap print in Britain, but they were less important in restricting access to information than the repeal campaigners implied. Until around 1850, the taxes simply reinforced the predominant tendency in the British publishing trade to concentrate on selling expensive books to a limited number of wealthy readers. The repeal of the taxes would have had relatively little effect on the price of print if most publishers had continued to focus on their traditional markets. For campaigning purposes, however, taxation provided a discrete target, with a defined solution and an established method of action. Building on the successes of the antislavery and anti–Corn Law campaigns, political lobbying had become a standard process for those hoping to influence legislation. Focusing on taxation also had the advantage of creating a platform on which all members of the book trade could unite. Even those publishers of expensive literary books who were not particularly bothered about the taxes would sign a petition for an issue affecting the entire trade. It would have been a completely different matter for educational reformers, liberal politicians, and a small number of young publishers to try to change the ingrained practices of the senior members of the book trade. Fortunately, by the time the tax repeals finally occurred, attitudes toward the education of the working classes and the desirability of cheap print had changed.

Seen from a modern perspective, the focus of the major British publishing houses on expensive books and small audiences in the first half of the nineteenth century seems blinkered, but it made sound commercial sense. The audience for books was always limited to people who were both literate and sufficiently affluent. For three centuries after the invention of printing, literacy had essentially been limited to the social and learned elites, so ability to pay and ability to read usually went hand in hand. When money was no object, printed books could be attractive and desirable, beautifully printed on fine white paper. Even as the book-buying classes expanded during the eighteenth century to include the gentry and the successful professional and merchant classes, the tradition of quality production and high prices continued to dominate the London book trade. It was where profits were easiest to make.

There were publishers who specialized in different sorts of works: children's books, almanacs, and ballads were far less elegant and sold at much cheaper prices. Some publishers created successful businesses from the high-volume sales of such cheap works, but they were on the fringes of the book trade and their activities often went unremarked by observers who focused on the eminent publishing houses in the streets around St. Paul's Cathedral in London.


Excerpted from Steam-Powered Knowledge by AILEEN FYFE Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Flood of Cheap Print

1. W. & R. Chambers and the Market for Print

Part I: Organizing a Proper System of Publishing

2. Industrial Book Production
3. Reaching a National Market
4. Production and Steam Power
5. New Formats for Information
6. Reaching an Overseas Market
7. A Modern Printing Establishment

Part II: Railways and Competition

8. The Coming of the Railways
9. Centralizing Business in Edinburgh
10. Routledge and the New Competition
11. Railway Bookstalls
12. Instruction in the Railway Marketplace
13. The Dignitaries of the Trade Take on Routledge

Part III: Steamships and Transatlantic Business

14. Transatlantic Opportunities
15. Getting to Know the American Market
16. The Dissemination of Cheap Instruction
17. A New Spirit of Engagement
18. Building Relationships with Boston and Philadelphia
19. Piracy and Shipwreck!


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