Howard's World

The Little Wonder – How two brothers rocked the Printing World

December 17, 2018

In the sleepy Ohio town of Niles, two tinkering brothers; Alfred and Charles Harris owned a small jewellery store.  The year was 1890 and after several blunders including an ill-fated attempt inventing an automatic nail-feeder, both swore off any more financial fiascos. In the 1972 book The Harris Story a wonderful chronicle tells us what happened next. Seems Charles just couldn’t help himself when he got to talking to the next door neighbor: the owner of the Niles Independent Newspaper. Mr. Smith had just purchased a new printing press and to Charles’ amusement boasted that although “state-of-the-art” this Cylinder press was still fed by a boy!

“You mean you’ve actually got to feed that press by hand” exclaimed Charles. “Of course” said Mr. Smith, “but I can feed 25 sheets a minute”. Unimpressed Charles shot back “No wonder you haven’t finished our handbills.” Well, if you’re so damned smart,” Smith shouted back, “why don’t you build one?”

“This first working Harris automatic press was not an improvement, it was a breakthrough’

So they did. After years of toil with liberal amounts of cussing and at times complete hopelessness, the two brothers succeeded in fashioning a crude feeding device that actually worked, -- well sort of.  Needing refinements they sent it to the Carter machine Shop in Niles to be built of iron. Charles took another job in town as the small jewellery shop wasn’t going to support two men with an expensive inventing habit. While Alfred ran the store Charles continued improving the little feeder. By 1893 both managed to save up enough money to send Charles to the Columbian World’s fair in Chicago where anyone that was anybody in the printing industry showcased their wares. Charles came back pumped. “There’s nothing there we can’t skin, Al, but you’d best go look to.”

Alfred was more methodical and sedate compared to Charles and he returned from Chicago with a lot of notes and sketches. This was when they also made another monumental decision to not only construct the feeder but also design a brand new FAST printing press. This was to be revolutionary, for the Harris brothers were witness to the lethargic speeds and excessive man-power needed to print anything. Harris would create a printing press no longer inhibited with a flat bed. The concept they came up with was a revelation. Machinery of this era were either platen (hand feed) or cylinder with reciprocating beds. Slow as molasses. Bed machines wasted so much energy having to stop and return. Rotational designs could run incredibly fast with less moving parts and even less energy. Today’s offset presses are a prime example of the rotary principle. There would be no limit on how fast they could go provided the press had an automatic feeder. E.C. Fuller and Dexter were already experimenting with feeders using negative air via a piston pump, but Harris would do it all without any air and for the first time on a printing press AUTOMATICALY!

By Christmas 1895 the Harris Automatic Press Company was incorporated. The fledgling affair was relocated to two rooms of the clapboard house where President William McKinley was born. On a freezing spring night in 1896 a group of men huddled around a lamp-lit contraption and watched as Charles threw the drive belt onto a pulley. The damn thing worked! “This first working Harris automatic press was not an improvement, it was a breakthrough.” (The Harris Story)

At a time when printers were feeding 25 sheets per minute, the Harris automatically fed press was able to print 250 per minute, 15,000 per hour.”

“We may starve to death in a gold mine. Cut it to 5,000 per hour.”

The little press with a sheet size of 11” x 12” could feed envelopes, tags and cards only with a thickness of no less than .009”. As the first machines were built Charles headed for Cleveland to start selling what was now designated the E1 card press. One call was made to the J. B. Savage Co. After ending his sales pitch with the statement the press would run 15,000 per hour Savage burst out laughing! “When my new stock of leather medals comes in you get the first one for champion romancer! LOOK, I’m VERY busy.” On subsequent calls laughter didn’t subside even though Charles started to roll back the claim. Now he was telling folks 12,000 impressions per hour. Dejected Charles returned to Niles, Alfred was surprised. “We may starve to death in a gold mine. Cut it to 5,000 per hour.” To this point the brothers reluctantly also agreed to modify the press without the watershed automatic feeder, turning it into what both hated; a hand fed press! Harris would now offer two versions of the E1.

Finally a prospect: The Brooks Printing Company in Cleveland. Brooks would later be purchased by Bowne and finally closed in 2011. The two Brooks brothers promised an order if Harris would put on a demonstration of the E1 running 5,000 per hour. Plus, they wanted Harris to pay for any wasted stock and keep the sale secret for six months. While Alfred contemplated the offer Charles readily accepted, “Agreed!” On the press’s arrival Charles struggled to set it up. There was a 12,500 run of government postcards waiting. Finally it was show time. The cards were flying out so fast one of the owners hurried to call in his brother. Minutes later they both came back to discover over half of the run was finished. “How fast is that press running” said Mr. Brooks? “About fourteen thousand and hour.” “I thought you said it would do five thousand and hour!” Shocked beyond belief Brooks’ forgot about the exclusivity agreement and ran off to get two competitors who happened to be visiting their office. History was made that day.

“If We Advertised Until Doomsday!”

Continual improvements were made to the E1 over the next few years including attachments to feed multiple-up tags, die-cut paper box blanks and paper bags. One unusual modification allowed the feeding of milk bottle (round) stoppers. Harris devised a second unit for numbering and perforating in one pass. But all was not well at Harris. Strange things were occurring to their presses. Parts would mysteriously fall off, nails somehow fell from the ceiling and emery dust just happened to find its way into the bushings on a lot of their sold presses. Sabotage was a worry; this revolutionary press had pressman and especially feeders fearing they’d be out of a job.

Then the marketing of the E1 turned out to be a nightmare slog through heavy bitumen. Word of mouth was slow to spread with most of the early purchasers mum about leaks to competitors. Even though Harris started spending a fortune on ads few believed the claims! Many a Harris ad took to chastising printers for being so narrow minded they couldn’t see what a revelation the E1 was.  One Harris advertisement appearing in the Inland Printer of 1900 railed: “If some people were not slow to catch on, there would be small chance for the more intelligent to get ahead in the race.” Topping that off with the heading: “If We Advertised Until Doomsday!”

The Harris boys screamed that it was so obvious the E1 would not only run like a banshee but eliminate gang-runs and multiple-ups on larger sheets. The savings on composition was mouth-watering. One-Up on the Little Wonder equaled eight-Up on a cylinder: Wake-Up Printerdom!
Wasn’t long before two roadblocks percolated to the surface with the Little Wonder. First it could only feed substrates with a minimum thickness of .009”. This was soon solved in 1900 with a brand new feeder that was specifically adaptable for thin paper.

But by far the biggest hurdle was something neither Harris brother considered: few of their customers used or had the equipment to make, Stereos or copper Electros.   Stereos were developed in the early 1800’s and were a lead plate made from a Flong mat mold of foundry type. Large shops and large web/newspapers had the casters for this revolutionary plate but small town printers, notoriously cheap, would not invest in casters, shavers and routers.  Without plates the E1 was useless.  Harris started offering equipment for plate-making as well as a curving device for electros. But that meant more money when the industry was still haunted by the Panic of 93 depression.

Back at the Niles factory the Harris brothers fashioned together a crude “Type Box” which would replace the plate cylinder and hold normal foundry type. But with the E1 cranking out at 15,000 the type would jar loose and spray out like a burst steam pipe. The type box wasn’t a success and create the biggest downfall in massive sales to jobbing printers.

Regardless, spurred by some early E1 successes, Harris built a larger press in 1897 called the S1, or “Big Brother”. The press would feed carton and paper with a larger sheet size of 16” x 20”. The S1 was almost as fast as the E1 too. In fact a confidential company specification sheet notes that the E1 could even reach 18,000 sheets per hour!  All told, Harris would build just 617 E1’s (1896-1932) and 449 S1 and S2’s (1897-1926) before ending production.

Germany’s first manufactured Offset press was a Harris!

The S1 would open up an even bigger door when in 1904 Harris happened upon the magic of OFFSET. During an installation of an E1 at the Enterprise Printing Company in Cleveland Alfred Harris would be witness to a commotion between a pressman and feeder girl over her miss-feeding a sheet on a lithographic stone press. On examination Harris noticed how much sharper the reversed image was compared to what was printed directly from the stone. Harris hurried back and by 1905 had modified their S1 with an additional blanket cylinder to become their first offset press: model S4L (L for Litho). At the time Harris employed a German immigrant. His name; Casper Hermann.  Having arrived from Königsberg Germany in 1889, Hermann bounced around print shops in Baltimore and Richmond before ending up in Niles. Being witness to the new letterpress/Offset S1, Hermann returned to Germany in 1907 where he would become the first German to build what was a copy of the Harris Offset press – the Triumpf. Germany’s first offset press was a Harris!

I only saw one Harris E1 and that was in 1982. I didn’t know what it was and quite surprised to learn Harris ever made letterpresses. This little Wonder fascinated me. How could it be that such a trailblazing design had been forgotten to time? During the last few years I tried to find another. Luckily I did but in terrible shape. Out of the blue I received a call from Richard Foley from Dayton. Richard had worked for Harris-Intertype and he was a fountain of knowledge. Rich connected me with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington who not only had the oldest E1 (in storage) but all the early records of the Harris Automatic Press Company. I spent two days rifling through documentation and original parts drawings- all drawn in ink on fabric. The Museum was very gracious and a big reason why today we have restored 259 manufactured in 1899.  We’ll be printing on it too! A re-creation of a Harris postcard franked in 1898 at Niles Ohio.

The press doesn`t have any ball bearings or a vacuum pump. All it needs is a ½ HP drive motor.  There are only five taper pins – everything else is keyed with set screws. The “Wobble Gear” for oscillation of the inker drum started with this E1 as did patented “Feed-Rolls” for sheet register. The press could be tripped`` off impression if it missed a sheet – unheard of then, taken for granted today.

All of these Harris construction methods remained to the very last Redaelli Tecna Offset Aurelia that rolled of the line around 1996! (Harris had sold off its sheetfed Offset business to the Italians in 1975).

The shuttle feeder remains the real piece of brilliance. If you have a mailing department, take a look at the feeder. That device is thanks to Harris. Today’s manufacturers; Morgana, Kirk-Rudy, Sitma, Buhrs and Cheshire to name a few, use the Harris principle top-load-bottom-feed device.
Ground-breaking as the Little Wonder was, even though being proven, it still attracted naysayers and killjoys. Today’s current environment shows not much has changed since 1896 -- in that we often times refuse to open our eyes to new technologies even when they are staring right back at us. Harris would enter electronics in the 1950s and are today L3 Harris Technologies Inc. with sales of $16 billion dollars and one hopes retaining a fond respect for the two jewellers in Niles Ohio who started it all. 

A special thank you to Mr. Richard Foley, Harris, and Ms. Joan Boudreau, curator of the Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Joan was patient and instrumental in assisting us to bring back a part of Print’s history.


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