The ‘Arab’ Press

The ‘Arab’ printing press was invented by Josiah Wade of Halifax, and the design patented in1872. It had a number of new features  that made it easy to operate and   produce superior print.  Although Wade died in 1910, production of his press continued until 1959 when some 40,000 presses had been manufactured.  The press was supplied in a mahogany box, with each piece numbered, so that the individual printer could erect the press himself: And Wade made sure that no part was too heavy for a man to handle.

History of the Arab Press

The Arab was certainly inspired by the American George Gordon and accounts tell us that Josiah Wade had imported a number of presses from America to study. One explanation for the close link between the Franklin Press (invented by Gordon) and the Arab is that the two men shared a voyage between the UK and America. Gordon was keen to make money from his Patents, and Wade was already on the periphery of the printing business. Wade bought the patents, designed the castings, and made some improvements.

The Patent of 1872 for the Arab indicates that the machine had ten novel features beyond the current state of the art including leather roller bearers to secure better inking; special guides for the paper on the platen; and a way of controlling ‘dwell’. This dwell issue was important: simple presses just open and close. Wade’s design allowed the platen to stay open longer (making for easier feeding of paper), and dwell to last longer (for a better impression). This erratic movement was possible even with the constant and uniform speed of a treadle or belt drive. The Patent shows a gear mechanism used to get this motion; but most models included a more simple wheel running within a cam. This sits behind the large cog stamped ‘J Wade Patentee, Halifax’.

The Arab is a ‘clamshell platen’, and works by bringing together both the ‘forme’ of type; and the platen holding the paper. The back platen moves on an axis at the foot of the machine.

Press reports of 1872 — re-printed in the Printers’ Register from the Halifax Guardian — show that Wade had named the machine ‘The Arab’. The view at the time was that the Arab race was hard-working and reliable. I assume that the term ‘Anglo-American’ was later added to secure appeal on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Arab was supplied in parts like modern-day flat-pack furniture. It was built ‘in the black’ (unpainted); run at the works and adjusted; painted, polished and coated in oil; re-erected when the forme was adjusted; and then dismantled and packed. Wade offered to send the machine along with a man to build it; but the instructions claimed that any man competent with a screwdriver could build the thing. The weight of each part could be carried by a man; but personal experience tells me that strong men are needed, especially when dismantling. This approach also cut transport costs and might be one factor in the spread of the machines over the ‘civilised world’. Indeed, the Halifax Courier reported that Wade’s machines were on the Shackleton Expedition to the South Antarctic.

My ‘Arab’ was made in 1900 and was bought in 1992 from the Badenoch Printers in Kingussie, where it had produced printed material for the surrounding area for nearly one hundred years. The press must have been lovingly looked after (and still is!) as it is in its original livery of blue and gold, and is in immaculate condition for a printing press of this vintage. The press has also got recent prominence in that it starred in the BBC documentary ‘The Wipers Times’, written by Ian Hislop and telling the true story of how a newspaper was published during WW2 in Ypres, just behind the front line.


Below is a picture of my grandson Matty, trying to work my ‘Arab’ Press.

Printing a run of 2000 cards for a service in Westminster Abbey

The ‘Arab’ press, in the middle of a run of some 2,000 cards ordered by the Arts Society (NADFAS) for their fiftieth anniversary service in Westminster Abbey, held in April 2019. The cards, in two colours, required hand feeding 4,000 times during which the treadle had to be operated by foot, 16,000 times.

This picture shows a card being printed for Findhorn Village Heritage, using some old blocks depicting drawings of the fishing industry.