Happy birthday, Friedrich, press technology pioneer

Apr 17, 2024 at 11:17 am by admin

It’s the two-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday today of Friedrich Koenig, inventor of the steam-powered press that printed The Times at an awesome 1100 sph.

Farmer’s son Koenig was the inventor of the high-speed cylinder press which produced the London daily on the night of November 28, 1814, heralding the arrival of a new era.

He had completed a book-printing apprenticeship with Breitkopf & Härtel and wanted to open a bookshop and print workshop of his own, and questioned why little had changed since Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century press.

Koenig designed his first press in Suhl, on the edge of the Thuringian Forest, where workshops were well equipped and mechanics knowledge advanced. However, print quality of the wooden press – which had an automatic inking unit – was indifferent, and none of the printers he approached were interested.

Realising the need for capital, he set off for the industrially-developed production environment of London, where he met prominent English printer Thomas Bensley. An 1807 contract covered Koenig’s developments and the partnership remained strained and conflict-laden, but opened doors including a meeting with Stuttgart-born precision engineer Andreas Bauer.

The two complemented each other with their individual passions and abilities –Koenig as the eloquent and restless visionary alongside the more cautious and introverted pragmatist Bauer, whose sound craft skills enabled him to realise his partner’s ideas.

Developments included a cast-iron version of the Suhl press, and the 1812 unveiling of an 800 sph cylinder press. By the time Times publisher John Walter placed his order, the steam-powered double-cylinder press was even capable of printing 1,100 sheets per hour and thus broke all existing records. Operating costs were considerable, but the enormous speed and at the same time excellent print quality more than made up for it. Nothing short of a sensation, it led to Walter mentioning Koenig and Bauer by name in his editorial.

Bensley resisted plans for series production however, and frustrated over patent disputes and a new contract, Koenig returned to Germany, buying a secularised monastery in Oberzell near Würzburg in 1817.

Setting up a printing press factory with Bauer in a region that had, until then, been devoted to wine-growing was challenging, but after a few initial difficulties, presses manufactured there began to gain a foothold. One by one, all the major printing companies in Germany and neighbouring countries moved to mechanised production and brought the still young company Koenig & Bauer a level of prosperity that only began to wane in the last few years of Koenig’s life.

Romance intervened when he returned to Suhl to visit boyhood friend Johanna Jacobs – who was living in relative poverty as a widowed mother of four children – and met and fell love with her daughter Fanny.

Despite the fact that Koenig was significantly older, they married in 1825 and Fanny followed her husband to Oberzell. Three children were born, but their happiness as a family was to be short-lived. After just eight years of marriage, Friedrich Koenig succumbed to a heart disease in 1833.

Economic problems had brought extra stress, with press sales slumping and exports to the French market drying up after the July Revolution in Paris. Koenig was laid to rest in the grounds of the Oberzell monastery.


Fanny Koenig continued the business with Bauer and guided the company to a new heyday. Friedrich Koenig is therefore remembered as the man who laid the foundations for what is today a global company, and with his invention, transformed the world of print.

–with Koenig & Bauer

Pictured: Koenig & Bauer chief executive Andreas Pleßke (right) with advisor Marc Bolza-Schünemann, great-great-great-great-grandson of Friedrich Koenig at the grave in Oberzell

Sections: Print business


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