A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fourteen


William Bullock (1813 – 1867)

The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is William Bullock who transformed the printing industry with his development of the rotary perfecting press.

Bullock was born in Greenville, New York and was orphaned at an early age. He started his working career early out of necessity as a machinist and iron founder and through self-education developed an interest and profound knowledge of mechanics. By the mid-1830s he was running his own machinery shop in Savannah, Georgia and developed a shingle-cutting machine. Unfortunately, his business went bust because he was unable to market his invention.

Moving back to New York – he had found time to sire 13 children with two wives in the interim – he made artificial legs. But soon he was able to give full rein to his inventive side designing, amongst other things, a cotton and hay press, a seed planter, a lathe cutting machine and a grain drill. It was this latter invention that brought him to national prominence when he was awarded second prize by the Franklin Institute in 1849.

Shortly afterwards, our hero moved into the newspaper industry editing the American Eagle and then building a high-speed press for the nationally circulated Leslie’s Weekly in 1860. The newspaper industry was growing like topsy – by the 1850s there were over 2,500 newspapers in the US alone – and the technological deficiencies of the printing presses were seriously inhibiting production capabilities. As early as 1835, Sir Rowland Hill – he of postage stamp fame here in Blighty – suggested that the next major step forward should be the development of a press that was capable of printing on both sides of the paper at the same time. It was to this problem that Bullock applied his mind.

By 1861 he had cracked it with the rotary perfecting press and he was awarded a patent two years later, after the prototype had been installed at the Cincinnati Times. In 1865 the Philadelphia Inquirer had installed the first fully functioning model. Bullock’s machine contained a number of technological breakthroughs – it allowed for continuous large rolls of paper to be fed automatically through its rollers, thus eliminating the necessity to hand-feed paper into the machine; the press was self-adjusting, allowed printing on both sides of the paper, folded the paper and with a sharp serrated knife which rarely needed sharpening cut the sheets with rapid precision. The combination of all these features revolutionised the efficiency of the printing process. His early models were able to produce 12,000 sheets an hour and later, after further refinements, notched up an impressive 30,000 sheets an hour. His design is still used today.

But sheer genius is not enough to make it into our Hall of Fame – there has to be a flaw in your character or you have to suffer a monumental stroke of ill-fortune. It was the latter that earns Bullock his elevation to our rolls. On April 3rd 1867, our hero was making some adjustments to one of his new presses being installed for the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. He tried to kick a driving belt onto a pulley but, unfortunately, his leg got caught in the machinery and was crushed. Within a few days he had developed gangrene and on 12th April died on the operating theatre when surgeons were trying to amputate his leg.

Developing a revolutionary piece of technology which was the cause of his death – William Bullock is a truly worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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