McGill restores 200-year-old printing press, likely oldest of its kind in North America

The Columbian printing press was built in 1821 — the same year McGill University was founded.

The printing press will give students a sense of the labour involved in hand printing, says librarian

The Columbian printing press, made in 1821, has been fully restored and is now in working order. (CBC)

In this century, it doesn't take long to type out a page of text and print it out on a sheet of paper. But two hundred years ago, printing required a lot more effort.

There are plenty of printers in the McGill University McLennan Library, but none is quite like the Columbian printing press, designed and manufactured by Georges Clymer in 1821 — the same year McGill University was founded.

It was found in 1957 in the basement of a bombed out building in England by former McGill University librarian Richard Pennington.

He brought it back to Montreal to use as a teaching tool for students.

Get a close up look at McGill's antique printing press

2 years ago
The Columbia press was made in 1821. 1:42

But in the 1960s, the press fell into disrepair and sat collecting dust until the university decided to fund its restoration in 2019.

Lauren Williams, a liaison librarian in the special collections and rare books department at McGill, said they had to send the 900-kilogram machine to a specialty repair shop in Ontario.

"You can't just walk to the corner hardware store and buy a replacement part for a 200-year-old printing press," Williams said.

It was to the Howard Iron Works Printing Museum and Restoration in Oakville.

Now fully restored and in working order, McGill's Columbian is one of just 32 in the world of the series.

"It's a really incredible press," Williams said. "Because it was made in 1821, we think it's the earliest model of its kind that exists in North America."

Setting the type on the press can be a painstaking process and take several hours to get right. (CBC)

Williams said the press still has value in a learning environment.

"We're hoping to show students how printing would have worked during the hand printing press period in the 19th century," she said. "It really gives students a sense of the labour involved."

While it doesn't take long to make an impression on the paper, setting up the type can be a painstaking process. Just one sheet of text can take hours to properly set up.

Most of all, Williams says it's a great chance for students to encounter history in a hands-on, interactive way.

"When you are actually able to touch something like a printing press, you feel almost like a conductor of history," she said.

With files from Matt D'Amours