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Steam-Powered Knowledge

William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860

With the overwhelming amount of new information that bombards us each day, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a time when the widespread availability of the printed word was a novelty. In early nineteenth-century Britain, print was not novel—Gutenberg’s printing press had been around for nearly four centuries—but printed matter was still a rare and relatively expensive luxury. All this changed, however, as publishers began employing new technologies to astounding effect, mass-producing instructive and educational books and magazines and revolutionizing how knowledge was disseminated to the general public.

In Steam-Powered Knowledge, Aileen Fyfe explores the activities of William Chambers and the W. & R. Chambers publishing firm during its formative years, documenting for the first time how new technologies were integrated into existing business systems. Chambers was one of the first publishers to abandon traditional skills associated with hand printing, instead favoring the latest innovations in printing processes and machinery: machine-made paper, stereotyping, and, especially, printing machines driven by steam power. The mid-nineteenth century also witnessed dramatic advances in transportation, and Chambers used proliferating railway networks and steamship routes to speed up communication and distribution. As a result, his high-tech publishing firm became an exemplar of commercial success by 1850 and outlived all of its rivals in the business of cheap instructive print. Fyfe follows Chambers’s journey from small-time bookseller and self-trained hand-press printer to wealthy and successful publisher of popular educational books on both sides of the Atlantic, demonstrating along the way the profound effects of his and his fellow publishers’ willingness, or unwillingness, to incorporate these technological innovations into their businesses.

336 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: British and Irish History

Language and Linguistics: Language and Law

Library Science and Publishing: Publishing


“[A] well-researched and well-written book. . . . William Chambers himself would have been proud of the production values of this book; it is well edited and printed, and handsomely bound in a manner that sacrifices none of its functional sturdiness.”

Times Literary Supplement

“The book is clearly and elegantly written, with short punchy chapters delivering a clearly-framed succession of points through the unpacking of particular episodes drawn from the rich resources of the Chambers archives. Those who choose to read it in its ink-and-paper manifestation will have the benefit of Chicago University Press’s typically fine production values and typography, of which, no doubt William Chambers would have been proud. . . . Whatever the future of print may be, Steam-Powered Knowledge is a valuable and lively account of the history of the Chambers firm as situated within British society and culture, and constitutes a fine contribution to the wider histories of Victorian publishing and technology.”

Iain Watts, Princeton University | Reviews in History

“This is an important book. It sheds new light on a significant aspect of the history of the book trade in both the United Kingdom and the United States at a transformative moment in their respective histories. It is well written and excellently produced. I recommend it without hesitation.”

John Feather, Loughborough University | American Historical Review

“Fyfe shows her deep knowledge of the material, and she writes with grace and elegance. Her publishers, the University of Chicago Press, have cooperated by producing a good-looking book, well-illustrated with reproductions from the Chambers’ publications.”

Leslie Howsam | Metascience

“Fyfe has produced a well-researched, well-written account of how one of the great Victorian publishing houses made cheap printed matter accessible to all classes. By describing how and why and in what contexts W. & R. Chambers adopted and adapted to new technology, Fyfe has filled an important gap in the history of the publishing industry.”

Terry S. Reynolds, Michigan Technological University | Business History Review

“This is an important study of William Chambers and W. & R. Chambers at a time of changes in the Scottish and wider book trades in the mid-nineteenth century. It fills gaps in the history of printing technology, and in our knowledge of the development of cheap print.”

Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society

“Based on extensive archival research and written in lively, accessible prose, Fyfe’s study provides an excellent overview of the early Victorian publishing world together with a detailed look at the work of one influential and innovative practitioner.”

John O. Jordan, University of California, Santa Cruz | Studies in English Literature 1500–1900

Steam-Powered Knowledge provides an excellent account of the publishing activities of William and Robert Chambers of Edinburgh, drawing extensively on that firm’s surviving business archives and publications. Writing in a clear and lively manner, Aileen Fyfe makes a strong case for the importance of the firm as a pioneer in the use of industrial methods of book production and as a crusader for the use of print for the instruction of the working classes.”—Michael Winship, University of Texas at Austin


Michael Winship, University of Texas at Austin

Steam-Powered Knowledge provides a fresh historical vision of book learning in transatlantic transit before the era of oceanic telecommunications. Mapping the coevolution of the Chambers publishing house with the rise of the steam-powered press, Fyfe’s original interpretation offers readers a welcome new grasp of how print culture became central to the globalization of knowledge.”

Graeme Gooday, University of Leeds

“A richly detailed, comprehensive exploration of the centrality of print as a medium for the transmission of knowledge in the Victorian period, and of the pioneering Edinburgh publishers whose harnessing of new steam-powered technology revolutionized print for the masses. Aileen Fyfe expertly weaves together social, cultural, political, and commercial commentary to paint a fascinating picture of the battle to provide cheap literature for a mass readership, and of the Chambers brothers’ adoption of cutting-edge printing processes and techniques to create a Victorian publishing empire. The work will surely become required reading for those wishing to understand the interaction between nineteenth-century print culture production, the Industrial Revolution, technological innovation, and a working-class readership.”

David Finkelstein, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

“‘Whirr! . . . Whizz! . . . Rattle! . . . Shock! . . . Bur- r- r!’ Charles Dickens was writing about train travel, but the noisy impact of the machine was equally pervasive in cheap publishing and printing during the early industrial era. In this pioneering study, Aileen Fyfe offers a superbly accessible guide to the complex and often risky business of providing information to newly literate readers on both sides of the Atlantic.”

James A. Secord, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Flood of Cheap Print

1. W. & R. Chambers and the Market for Print

Part I: Organizing a Proper System of Publishing

2. Industrial Book Production
3. Reaching a National Market
4. Production and Steam Power
5. New Formats for Information
6. Reaching an Overseas Market
7. A Modern Printing Establishment

Part II: Railways and Competition

8. The Coming of the Railways
9. Centralizing Business in Edinburgh
10. Routledge and the New Competition
11. Railway Bookstalls
12. Instruction in the Railway Marketplace
13. The Dignitaries of the Trade Take on Routledge

Part III: Steamships and Transatlantic Business

14. Transatlantic Opportunities
15. Getting to Know the American Market
16. The Dissemination of Cheap Instruction
17. A New Spirit of Engagement
18. Building Relationships with Boston and Philadelphia
19. Piracy and Shipwreck!



Research Society for Victorian Periodicals: Robert and Vineta Colby Scholarly Book Prize

Society for the History of Technology (SHOT): Sidney Edelstein Prize

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