Virtual Printing Press

E-Learning, History of the book

Overall Aimsvirtualpress

To build a three-dimensional virtual model of a printing press of the kind used to print books in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This will be freely accessible online. In the short term, this model will be of sufficient quality and interactivity to be used effectively for teaching purposes. In the long term, the model will be built to the highest level of accuracy possible with current technologies and will include the modelling of such attributes as the densities and strengths of the component parts. In addition to the press itself, all the ancillary equipment to be found in an early modern printshop will eventually be modelled.

Outputs: Massing model built in Second Life

More details can be found, including a link to the press, on Gabriel Egan’s website


  • Delivery to Chief Modeller of model specification based on published plans for a replica wooden press
  • Application of 20-days funding for modeller’s time to the task of making a massing model
  • Delivery of massing model in Second Life and publicized to user groups
  • Dissemination of massing model and reports on its creation to Advisory Board for its comments and advice on which parts to refine first
  • Exploitation of the massing model in an undergraduate modules by Egan and Gadd
  • Secure funding for Work Package 3

Pedagogical Exploitation

The model will form a central teaching tool for a third-year undergraduate module, ‘Hand-printing and the Letterpress’, in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University, to be taught by Egan; the module will run from September 2009 to January 2010 with a cohort of 20 students. The module exists to give students experience of the technology of printing text by hand (using a letterpress), an understanding of the history of this technology, and an appreciation of ways that it has affected literary publication. Upon successful completion of the module, students will have acquired and be able to demonstrate a theoretical and practical understanding of hand-printing technology, knowledge of the key technological components in hand-printing, and a sensitivity to the ways in which practical and material concerns of book production impact upon the book’s function as a medium for dissemination of literary texts. The module is predicated on the assumption that understanding the physical processes by which books used to be made will help students better understand those books’ contents, and for this the massing model created in this Work Package is central.

Students will undertake background reading on the early history of the printed book, from the careers of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton in the 15th century to the decline of professional hand printing in the 20th century, while simultaneously building practical skills and knowledge as they work in teams on the real jobs involved in printing. The skills of casting off of manuscript copy, setting and distributing type, and imposing a forme will be taught using real paper and type, but the stages thereafter will be taught using the Second Life model press made in this Work Package.

Students on the module will be required, for credit, to visit the model in Second Life and complete a series of tasks that demonstrate an understanding of how it works. For this purpose, the model will be built many times real life size, so that students may walk across its flat surfaces and fly up its upright parts. Students will perform such tasks as attaching labels to identify the various parts of the press (the coffin, the head, the carriage and so on) and removing various parts in sequence and reassembling them in the correct sequence to show an understanding of how they work together. Depending on the level of detail that is achieved in the massing model, a number of practical operations will be performed on it.

As a minimum, the model will permit students to place a chase full of type into the press in the correct manner, to attach a sheet of paper to the tympan using points (and so to see how correct registration was maintained when a sheet was turned over to print on its reverse) and to lower the frisket (a mask that keeps ink off the margins of the page) onto the paper. These minimal operations are all much more effectively taught and learnt in practice using a model press than in theory using pictures, and yet require only that the model contains two articulated joints and a sliding carriage; the modeller has confirmed that this is a realistic minimum achievable at this stage. If the level of detail that is achieved goes beyond those two hinges and sliding carriage, the students may also be able to see in action the way that the rotational motion created by pulling the bar of the press is turned, via the screw and nut, into vertical motion of the platen, applying pressure to the paper and forcing it onto the inked type. If the project is able to secure funding for further Work Packages (sketched below) then these aspects of mechanical detail will be iteratively refined to produce a model press that increasingly works just like a real one, to be exploited more fully in teaching and in research.

The model will also be drawn upon, for demonstration purposes, in Gadd’s third-year undergraduate module, ‘Authors, Books and Readers in Early Modern England’ in the Department of Literature at Bath Spa University. This module will run from October 2009-May 2010, with a cohort of sixteen. The module introduces students to all aspects of early modern print culture, but the first six weeks focuses primarily on the mechanics of hand-press printing. During those six weeks, students are taken to the Bibliography Room at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, to set type; they will also be shown some real hand-presses. The Second Life model will be demonstrated in class as preparation for this visit.

Project leaders

Ian Gadd & Gabriel Egan

Project partner

Graham Hibbert (Chief Modeller)