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John Wells: Hand Press Innovator

Fig. 1. River view of Hartford, Connecticut, ca. 1820–1940 (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collections, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Fig. 1. River view of Hartford, Connecticut, ca. 1820–1840 (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collections, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

My discovery of the letters patent for John Wells’s renowned lever printing press and the 200th anniversary of the innovative beginnings of the press have inspired the following: a short recollection of the life, work, and inventions of John I. Wells of Hartford, Connecticut.1

John Wells (1769-1832) began working in 1789 as a cabinetmaker and made it known that he was interested in following in the footsteps of others in the trade. He set up shop west of the “Great Bridge” (over the former Mill, now culvert-controlled, Park River) in the former address of the well-known cabinet maker Samuel Kneeland, who had just moved to a larger facility.2 Wells’s product was advertised as bedsteads, chairs, and other cabinetwork. Soon after beginning this, his first, business Wells quit town and began work as a journeyman cabinet maker for another renowned cabinet maker in New York City, George Shipley.3

After completing his New York training Wells returned to Hartford in 1791 and in 1794 opened a shop in what is presumed to have been a more advantageous location for a cabinet making shop, on the west side of Main Street “north of the Great Bridge.”4 At that time he also published the fact that from that time forward he would regularly use the middle initial “I” (of unknown meaning) to distinguish himself from others of a similar name.5 Wells’s business thrived through the rest of the 1790s and into the first decade of the nineteenth century, during which time he married, expanded his property, purchased land, and built the home (on the east side of Main Street) where his six children were born. Wells periodically advertised in Hartford newspapers for assistants and apprentices. He also advertised that his furniture was made using both mahogany and cherry wood.6

Fig. 2. Enlargement from “Plan of the City of Hartford from a Survey Made in 1824” Hartford: D. St. John and N. Goodwin, 1824 (Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

Fig. 2. Enlargement from “Plan of the City of Hartford from a Survey Made in 1824” Hartford: D. St. John and N. Goodwin, 1824 (Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

In 1806 Wells moved shop again “north … of the Great Bridge, to the 2nd and 3rd floors of a shop owned by John Dodd, Jr.”7 Later, between 1807 and 1809, he was listed as a partner in the Hartford cabinetmaking firm of Wells and Flint, but in 1809 he sold out to his partner, Erastus Flint. Wells continued his work at his home address farther south on Main Street—especially, it appears, to sell the product of the first of his several patented inventions. This invention, for grinding painters’ colors, was patented on June 13, 1809. The paint (and ink) business served him well in the years to come—but more immediately in order to promote the product of the new invention Wells was required to sell his house and belongings. He also advertised the fact that he was going out of the cabinetmaking business.8

At the turn of the nineteenth century there were several cabinet makers in Hartford, and it seems safe to assume that Wells followed an inclination to investigate other different and potentially more lucrative ventures. The establishment of the U.S. Patent Office in 1790, had already inspired many Americans with the possibilities of fame and fortune through their own inventions. Be that as it may Wells probably saw the financial benefits of continuing his interests in cabinetmaking, and had partnered with Samuel Beckwith, Jr., also of Hartford, by 1810 to sell between them paint, ink, sofas, easy chairs, and cabinetwork; Beckwith concentrated on cabinetmaking and Wells on paint and ink.9

Wells had been involved in the manufacture of paint and ink at least two years before his 1809 patent was granted. Communiques in 1807 between Wells and printer John Babcock Jr., of Hartford and later of New Haven (beginning in 1803), suggest Wells’s inclination to replace some poor-quality printer’s ink that he had previously sold Babcock.10 In the 1810s Wells’s newspaper advertisements continued to promote his products and services. The ads also mention the high quality of his paint, as well as the availability of linseed oil. (Linseed oil was used as a pigment binder in oil paints.)

By 1814, in Wells’s forty-fifth year, he was co-leasing a property with sign-painter William Thompson. After that year, and for a decade following, Wells was recorded as the sole lessee of the property, which because of its upstairs living quarters could be assumed to have served as the living quarters for him and his immediate family. During these years Wells’s paint and ink business continued to flourish but Wells was in continual need of more water power in order to process his products. To that end, in mid-1815, Wells purchased a mill at the end of Pearl Street on the Park River, near Hartford’s present-day Bushnell Park. The mill allowed him to advertise in 1816 that his printers’ “Ink Manufactory” would enable him to “supply agents in distant cities … which he has not been able to do for the past several years.” The ad also suggested that his ink was “the best ground of any in the United States.”11

Fig. 3. “View from Seymour’s Wharf” by A. Willard, a vignette from the “Plan of the City of Hartford from a Survey Made in 1824.” Hartford: D. St. John and N. Goodwin, 1824 (Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

Fig. 3. “View from Seymour’s Wharf” by A. Willard, a vignette from the “Plan of the City of Hartford from a Survey Made in 1824.” Hartford: D. St. John and N. Goodwin, 1824 (Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

During the 1810s Wells had continued experimental work on other inventions. He was granted a patent on January 24, 1815, for an invention having to do with the hanging and placing of carriage steps. But in order to continue his main bread-winning ventures Wells had partnered again, by 1816, with another cabinetmaker, Joseph Choate, and sold with him a supply of chairs and other furniture.12

Like any practical inventor Wells preserved the legal documentation concerning his patents. The precious documents were the formal record of his rights associated with them. In 1981 Wells’s great-great-grandson donated what are believed to be four of Wells’s letters patents to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The earliest of these letters dates from July 15, 1816. (The papers for the earlier aforementioned two patents were not among those donated.)13

Fig. 4. Incomplete letterpress-printed letters patent for a July 15, 1816 patent believed to be associated with John I. Wells (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Fig. 4. Incomplete letterpress-printed letters patent for a July 15, 1816 patent believed to be associated with John I. Wells (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

The 1816 patent document includes the lower half of the cover page for an invention with the standard signatures of the President (James Madison), the Secretary of State (James Monroe), and the Attorney General (Richard Rush). The inventor’s name and the title of the invention would have been added to the top half of the same document. (See fig. 6, the 1819 letters patent, for comparison). Although current records of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a patent granted to Wells in 1816 do not exist, it seems safe to assume that he may well have been granted an additional patent whose records have been lost. With the devastating U.S. Patent Office fire of 1836 all of its records and the three–dimensional patent models for its some ten thousand recorded inventions were destroyed. Attempts were made soon after the fire and since then to document the lost invention records but for various reasons only a small percentage, about one third of the ten thousand, have come to light. Finding the early inventors’ copies of their letters patents seems to be the last hope of finding the records. Some of those have been re-found in various repositories around the country others may never be found.

Fig. 5. Plate included in The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. III. New-Haven: S. Converse, 1821 (From Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Libraries)

Fig. 5. Plate included in The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. III. New-Haven: S. Converse, 1821 (From Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Libraries)

Vellum sheets. Handwritten patent letters issued to John Wells for a lever printing press, 1819, patent number X3070. 1981.0252.01.

Fig. 5. Plate included in The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. III. New-Haven: S. Converse, 1821 (From Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Libraries)

Wells hit the invention jackpot with his now-renowned lever press, granted a patent on February 8, 1819 (later numbered X3070).14

The press sold well enough that Wells quickly purchased a property on what is now Hartford’s Lewis Street for the sole purpose of the manufacture of the press.15

The August 24, 1819 issue of the Connecticut Courant announced the sale of the press and described Wells as an “ingenious mechanist” who “from the application of the power of levers end-wise, in expressing Linseed Oil, … became fully convinced that it exceeded all other mechanical powers.” It also described the press as “more simple and compact” than George Clymer’s press and that “its impression is very powerful and even.” It has been described as having “a cast-iron frame and simple toggle (joint) levers in elbow form (to lower the impressing platen), and was the first all-American iron lever press after Clymer left the country with his Columbian” (in 1818).16

The advertisement for the lever press in The Connecticut Courant of August 24, 1819, reads:

From the Connecticut Mirror.

Wells’ Printing Press. —We are pleased to state that Mr. John I. Wells, an ingenious mechanist of this city, has at length so far perfected his PATENT LEVER PRINTING PRESS, as to offer it publicly for sale. We witnessed it in operation on Thursday last, and perhaps some account of it will be acceptable to our brethren of the type.

Mr. Wells states that from the application of the power of levers end-wise, in expressing Linseed Oil, he became fully convinced that it exceeded all other mechanical powers. It is now about four years since he made his first experiment upon an old press. Since that time he has been constantly making experiments upon every part of the press which admitted of improvement, and his has succeeded in every effort. Perhaps it may be deemed high ground, after the deserved reputation which Mr. Clymer’s presses have acquired; —but we are nevertheless of the opinion (and we have witnessed the operations of both for more than two years) that Mr. Wells’ press excels his. The construction of it is more simple and compact, and its impression is very powerful and even.

In order that a proper estimate of the power of this press may be formed, it may not be improper to subjoin a short description of it. The frame, platen, and several other parts, are of cast iron; and the weight of the cast and wro’t iron, is about 1500 lbs. The power is obtained by two upright levers, footing in the center of the platen; within a strong circle upon the plate. These levers are fifteen inches in length, one and three-fourths of an inch square in the body, and four inches wide at the ends. They move in sockets of the semicircle of half an inch; falling back in the centre, two inches, from a perpendicular line-this admits of the rising of the platen. They are governed in this joint, and forced nearly to a straight line, by two horizontal levers, attached in connection with the arm or bar, to the back part of the press; -which, in gaining the power are brought nearly to a straight line. The platen is raised by a spindle, suspended upon a balance lever, by a balance weight. It is governed in its movements by grooves, attached to the inner edge of the body of the press.

The manner of hanging the tympan and securing the girths is also new. Every part exposed to friction is steeled.

The present price of these presses are from 325 to 350 dollars, as they are for size-which we think cheap, considering the coast of the iron, the amount of labor, together with their ease and durability.

A reminder advertisement for the press with the mention of four new presses for sale in The Connecticut Courant on April 4, 1820, reports:

PATENT LEVER PRESS

Four of this new kind of Iron Printing Presses [sic] are now completed, and ready for sale. The expression of approbation from those who have examined, and from those who have proved them, authorized an expectation that the interest of the printers, and of the manufacturer, will be mutually advanced by them. It is fully admitted, that, in point of ease in labor facility in operation, or of durability, they excel all that have preceded them. Their appearance is unquestionably the most pleasing. Should a further inducement to purchase be requisite, it might be mentioned, that pressmen will work on them at reduced prices. Either on the principle of encouraging improvements, or of promoting private interest, it may be well for those who conduct printing establishments, whether near or more remote, to investigate the merits of this press.

Price for the medium presses $325, of super-royal do. $350. A credit should be allowed, on good security.

John I. Wells, Hartford, (Conn.) 3 mo. 20.

We invite the attention of printers in the above advertisement of Mr. Wells. In our opinion, his statements are correct; having seen his presses in operation.

Editors of the Courant

The Connecticut Courant continued its association with the press and its inventor in the December 4, 1821, edition:

The Lever Printing Press.

JOHN I. WELLS,

Continues to manufacture the LEVER PRINTING PRESSES, of Medium, Superroyal [sic], and Imperial sizes. Sufficient recommendations of them, are already before the public; but it may be right to observe that in every instance where they have used, they have proved entirely satisfactory. The prices are reduced, and credit given on good notes with interest.

                  Also, PRINTING INK, of four different qualities. For specimens see the new Gazetteer, and Dwight’s Travels; and nearly all that is used in this State. The terms are easy; a discount for ready payment, or a credit given.

                  Orders for either of the above mentioned, would be promptly attended to.

                  Hartford, (Conn.) 11th Month, 1821.

By 1825 Wells had advertised that his press (in three different sizes) continued to be sold at reduced prices, that he had been able to retain between four and six workmen to manufacture the presses, and that he retained agents for the sale of the press in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Albany, and Utica.17

With the sale of many, more than two hundred, presses18

Wells was able to purchase a more prestigious property in Hartford, still on Main Street. He also sold his mill property in 1827 and purchased another mill and dam on the Woods River with his son J. Hubbard Wells who by that time was managing the Wells ink and paint business.19

In 1828 Wells’s words about his invention were published in Adam’s … Typographia … (1828) including the following:                    

“It is due to myself, and to the printing interest, to explain one important point, viz. the advantage of long levers. Having been a practical mechanic, and for many years interested in the making of Linseed Oil, I had witnessed the superior power of long levers. My first ideas of the adaptation of this power to the printing press, were derived from the operation of an Oil Mill; and from supplying the printers with Ink, I had been led to notice the necessity for improvement in presses. My first calculations were for levers as long as a press of convenient height would admit of; and accordingly levers of 15 inches each were used, but in a new set of patterns I reduced them to 14 inches, at which I have continued them to the present time. In thus using long levers, I have not consulted my own interest, so much as the interest of the purchasers, or the relief of the workmen.

Wells continued to produce and patent inventive mechanisms during the remainder of his life. A March 23, 1824 patent was granted for his “improvement in applying levers to book binder’s cutting presses,” (later numbered X3836). The invention was described as made of wood and cast iron, and using levers (including a foot lever). It is not known what inspired the invention in particular, although one should assume the possibility that his continued associations with printers, who by trade were directly associated with book binders, may well have assisted the inspiration. It is also not known whether the book cutting press was ever manufactured.

The last of the known Wells letters patents are those for his “improvement on his Printing Press.” The patent (later numbered X5550) was granted on June 29, 1829. It was signed by Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Attorney General John Macpherson Berrien.

Fig. 7. Letters patent for improvements to the Wells lever printing press, granted on June 29, 1829 (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Fig. 7. Letters patent for improvements to the Wells lever printing press, granted on June 29, 1829 (Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Wells’s letters patent for this invention like the others was prepared formally, on parchment; it included an embossed seal and ribbons. The format of the cover sheet text had changed and was produced from an etched printing plate (like that for the book-binders’ cutting press). The two-page document for the improvements to the lever press includes Wells’s description of the new invention: “The improvement consists in simplifying the method of applying the power of the horizontal levers to the vertical levers.” A more specific explanation following the inclusion of a drawing on paper described the improvement.

Fig. 8. Drawing sewn into the letters patent for Wells lever printing press, granted on June 29, 1829. Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Fig. 8. Drawing sewn into the letters patent for Wells lever printing press, granted on June 29, 1829. Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

“The improvement is effected as follows, the back up right post of the frame A, in the drawing accompanying this, has two projections from the inner edge, of three inches, horizontally, and three fourths of an inch thick, and forms a socket, that receives the bar B, which is one inch thick; and a pivot of three fourths of an inch in diameter, passes through these members and the bar at E. The bar here spreads horizontally five and a half inches, and three inches from the aforesaid pivot is another pivot, on which the driving lever D moves. The driving lever claps the bar, receiving the pivots, and is of suitable from, strength, and length, entering a small round cavity in the upper vertical lever at F, near the lower end. The pulling of the bar forward, brings the driving (horizontal) lever, nearly into a straight line from the first mentioned pivot E, and the vertical levers also nearly to a straight line; H & G are branches of the bar extending in a circular form backwards; and by reaching the frame near the back edge, operate as checks upon the bar, in its movement to the extremes each way. It is of cast iron, but might be wrought, and acts as one of the horizontal levers.”

The lever press in the collections at the Smithsonian appears to be one of the last examples of either the original design or the 1829 improvement of Wells’s lever press invention. With Wells’s death in 1832, at age 63, and the uncertain continuations of his business, the eventual expiration of his patents (each after fourteen years), and the understandable interests in newer press inventions, Wells’s press was quickly superseded by other inventions, and the responses of other innovative undertakings. Even so we can celebrate Wells’s legacy which includes his inventive spirit, his successes, and his courage to follow through with and benefit from his interests and inventions. Wells’s offspring, a component of his legacy, include J. Hubbard Wells who managed his father’s ink manufactory by 1827, but who is also listed as an author, printer, and publisher between the 1830s and about 1860. One of John Hubbard Wells’s former pressmen and later foreman, Edwin D. Tiffany, reported that: “When the father (John I.) died Hubbard continued the business, and added book printing to it by desire of many local book publishers.” Tiffany wrote that “every inch of room in the building was utilized. Some of the presses were close up under the roof. It was so hot there in summer that the rollers melted.” After two moves, in 1836, Tiffany and a partner, Newton Case, bought out the Wells establishment.20

A John H. Wells appears to have served during and survived the Civil War as a Union private. J. Hubbard Wells died in 1862, at age 64. John I. Wells’s second son Charles Pitkin Wells worked as a druggists and in life insurance. Whether any others of Wells’s descendants followed in the cabinetmaking or printing business we do not know.

John I. Wells and his wife, Anne, and some of his children, including J. Hubbard Wells, are buried in the Old North Cemetery on Main Street in Hartford.