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A Brief History of the Press

A black and white photo of a printing press at work
Cambridge University Press is the oldest media business in the world and the oldest university press.

Cambridge originated from Letters Patent (similar to a royal charter) granted to the University by Henry VIII in 1534, and we have been producing books continuously since the first University Press book was printed in 1584.

The beginning

University printing did not actually begin until the first practising University Printer, Thomas Thomas, had been appointed in 1583. He set up a printing house on the site of what became the Senate House lawn – a few yards from where our bookshop now stands. In those days, the Stationers' Company in London jealously guarded its monopoly of printing (which partly explains the delay between the date of the University's Letters Patent and the printing of the first book).

At one point Thomas was described by the London opposition as 'vtterlie ignoraunte in printinge'. He was in fact a very competent printer and he was a fine scholar. In 1591, Thomas's successor, John Legate, printed the first Cambridge Bible, an octavo edition of the popular Geneva Bible. The London Stationers objected strenuously, claiming that they had the monopoly on Bible printing. The University's response was to point out the provision in its charter to print 'all manner of books'. Thus began our long tradition of publishing the Bible, a tradition that has endured for over four centuries, beginning with the Geneva Bible, and continuing with the Authorized Version, the Revised Version, the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible.

Richard Bentley

The restrictions and compromises forced upon us by the dispute with the London Stationers did not really come to an end until the scholar Richard Bentley was given the power to set up a 'new-style press' in 1698. It is difficult to overestimate Bentley's importance in our history. Previously, we had been located in property owned by whomever happened to be appointed University Printer. Under Bentley's reforms, our buildings and equipment became the property of the University, and Bentley must be given most of the credit for the basic idea of an academic press, owned by the University, supervised by a body of its senior members, and aiming to publish works to the greater credit of the University as a place of education, religion, learning and research.

Newton's Principia Mathematica

Bentley also developed the concept of entrepreneurial publishing at a time when the productive role of the printer and the selling role of the bookseller were much more dominant. One of Bentley's major initiatives was a series of editions of the classics, including his own edition of Horace. But his greatest achievement was a new edition of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1713) – one of the most important scientific books ever produced. It was in Bentley's time, in 1696, that a body of senior scholars ('the Curators', known from 1733 as 'the Syndics') was appointed to be responsible to the University for our affairs. Our Syndicate's publishing committee still meets regularly (eighteen times a year), and its role still includes the review and approval of our planned output.

John Baskerville

John Baskerville became University Printer in the mid-eighteenth century. Baskerville's concern was the production of the finest possible books using his own type-design and printing techniques. His Folio Bible of 1763 is one of the finest ever produced.

Of this edition, Baskerville wrote: 'The importance of the work demands all my attention; not only for my own (eternal) reputation; but (I hope) also to convince the world, that the University in the honour done me has not intirely misplaced their favours.'

Caxton would have found nothing to surprise him if he had walked into our printing house in the eighteenth century: all the type was still being set by hand; wooden presses, capable of producing only 1,000 sheets a day at best, were still in use; and books were still being individually bound by hand. A technological breakthrough was badly needed, and it came when Lord Stanhope perfected the making of stereotype plates. This involved making a mould of the whole surface of a page of type and then casting plates from that mould. We were the first to use this technique, and in 1805 we produced the technically successful and much-reprinted Cambridge Stereotype Bible.

Printing innovations

Our successful exploitation of stereotyping and of other innovations, such as the durable iron press, enabled us to make the transition from a small printing office to a large printing works.

By the 1850s we were using steam-powered machine presses, employing two to three hundred people, and occupying several buildings in the Silver Street and Mill Lane area. The most important of these buildings, and one that we still occupy, is the Pitt Building (1833), which was built specifically for us and in honour of William Pitt the Younger.

Publishing developments

Under the stewardship of C. J. Clay, who was University Printer from 1854 to 1882, we increased the size and scale of our academic and educational publishing operation. An important factor in this increase was the inauguration of our list of schoolbooks (including what came to be known as the 'Pitt Press Series'). During Clay's administration, we also undertook a sizeable co-publishing venture with Oxford: the Revised Version of the Bible, which was begun in 1870 and completed in 1885.

The appointment of R. T. Wright as Secretary of the Press Syndicate in 1892 marked the beginning of our development as a modern publishing business with a clearly defined editorial policy and administrative structure. It was Wright (with two great historians, Lord Acton and F. W. Maitland) who devised the plan for one of our most distinctive contributions to publishing – the Cambridge Histories.

The Cambridge Modern History was completed in 1912. Nine years later we issued the first volumes of the freshly-edited complete works of Shakespeare, a project of nearly equal scope that was not finished until 1966.

Our list in science and mathematics began to thrive, with men of the stature of Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford subsequently becoming our authors. Our impressive contribution to journal publishing began in 1893, and today we publish around 240 journals.

Growing as an educational and academic publisher

The story of the last 150 years is one of phenomenal growth and development. In the 1850s, we were predominantly a printing business, and primarily a printer of Bibles and prayerbooks. We had only the beginnings of a scholarly list, a schoolbook list, and a scientific list. Today, our range covers virtually every educational subject seriously studied in the English-speaking world, with the last part of the twentieth century seeing diversification into professional books, textbooks, reference works, English language teaching publications, software and electronic publishing.

We have also developed strong commitments to environmental policies, and our UK operation has been accredited with ISO 14001, a prestigious standard – currently held by no other publisher and printer – which recognizes our use of non-wasteful materials and processes.

The Cambridge Bookshop

In 1992 we opened our own bookshop at 1 Trinity Street, in the centre of Cambridge. Books have been sold continuously on this site since at least 1581, perhaps even as early as 1505, making it the oldest known bookshop site in Britain. It was in this building that Tennyson gave a reading of his poem Maud, that Thackeray took lunch with the founders of the Macmillan publishing empire who ran a bookshop here in the 1840s, and that Charles Kingsley was welcomed as a frequent guest.

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