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Historical Context

American inventor William Weeden’s manuscript account of his experiments in color-printing seeking a simpler alternative to the complex and laborious process of chromolithography, with thirteen small-scale specimens of color printing from blocks of solid, water-soluble ink, compounded of gum and powdered watercolor. Weeden’s experiments constitute a largely unknown effort to revolutionize color printing by devising a means of printing multiple colors simultaneously. As an inventor and patent holder, Weeden was aware of the importance of documenting the history of his inventions to address any legal challenges that might arise, and he composed the present, thorough account expressly for that purpose. William N. Weeden (1841-1891) was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was apprenticed to watchmaker, jeweler, and engraver James Tucker Almy. He removed to Boston circa 1860 and opened a watch repairing shop, and also made stencils and dies. Weeden evolved into an inventor of diverse ability, working both independently and for such firms as Merriam & Co. (seal engraving and die sinking) and the Novelty Maufacturing Co., both of Boston, as well as Benedict & Burnham (manufacturers of lamp burners) and the Waterbury Watch Company, of Waterbury, Connecticut, and his own Novelty Metal Works and Weeden Manufacturing Company of New Bedford. He held over forty patents for various lighting innovations, magic lanterns, luminous match safes, a music box, mechanical banks, and numerous steam-powered toys. An artist as well, he made several trips to Europe, where he studied both art and the most current printing processes.

Weeden’s account is divided into three sections: a preliminary history of his engagement with the problem of color printing and his efforts to develop a new process; a description of the process he developed; and a record of his experiments “to determine the right proportions and materials to be used in making the solid colors to be used in my Multi-colour Printing Process.” He relates that his interest in color printing improvements dates from “some time between 1868 & 1872” when he was called upon to view the apparently innovative “Rice colour printing press,” which he found “to be merely a new press for inking by rolls a line of type with a separate colour. The process being merely mechanical and not having in it the elements of a new idea really....” He adds that while examining this press his “mind became first filled with the thoughts of a future Process for colour Printing to take the place of Chromo Lithography.”

Weeden had gained considerable experience of printing technologies while in Boston where he worked as a copper and steel plate engraver, and prepared blocks and plates “for Colour Printing on Soap Labels, Show Cards &c &c.” Once his mind was stimulated by the possibility of an innovation in color printing he readily embarked upon the search for a new method, and he made numerous experiments to that end over the course of more than a decade. He describes his ideas and efforts in detail, especially those most immediately leading to the method he developed: “At last it came to my mind that if the block for printing was itself made of ink I could get an impression. This was the dawning of a grand idea! I soon saw that if my block could be made of solid ink, it might be of many colours...I saw before my mental vision a solid block of ink or colour--the greens of green ink, the blues of blue ink &c &c Each colour extending down through the entire block so that the printing block was but a Mosaic of many tinted pieces of solid ink. Together with the Solid Ink idea came the accompanying thought of how easy the solid ink, just on the surface could be made liquid at the instant of printing. I soon decided that a mixture of colour with gum easily soluble in Water would be just what my idea required...I immediately went to my factory and taking a small box of cake Water colours , I secured 10 of them together in a wood clamp and then with a file I smoothed off the ends of the group of colours until I had a level surface. I thus had a printing block which answered the requirements of my mind. I then dampened a piece of paper and applied it to the end of my colour block, the moisture of the paper at once softened the gum holding the colour and an imprint of 10 colours at one impression demonstrated my reasoning to have been correct and this first impression, which I have carefully preserved, was the very first practical demonstration of my new process...”

Weeden’s first impression, dated June 1886, and impressions he made in London in July of 1886, remain preserved in an annotated envelope tipped into the journal. While crude, they clearly demonstrate the general viability of his method, at least on a small scale. However, in spite of Weeden’s confidence--repeatedly expressed in his account--that he had discovered an innovative and important new method of color printing, it of course failed to come into general use and displace chromolithography.

Scope of Collection

The collection contains a hand-written manuscript by William N. Weeden detailing his printing techniques (“Multicolour Printing. A New Discovery…1886”) and 13 specimens of color printing on small scraps of paper, most with annotations. The collection also contains accounts of ink recipes and an experiment log.