Today, the hound and the Baskerville. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The English engraver John
Baskerville was born in 1706. At seventeen, he was
engraving tombstones. By the time he was twenty, he
was teaching writing and bookkeeping and running an
engraving business as well. At thirty-two, he took
up the then-popular lacquering process that we call
japanning, and that made him wealthy.
Baskerville was an early mentor to Matthew Boulton, who built Watt's
steam engines. He was also a good friend of
Benjamin Franklin, who visited him from time to
was forty-four when he took up the business for
which he's known today. He applied his uncommon
engraving skill to printing and typography. After
four years' work, he produced the first of the
elegant Baskerville fonts. He developed a
new and better ink; he exploited the recent
invention of so-called woven paper; and he
generally brought fine printing to new heights.
Cambridge University Press hired him as their
printer, and there, in 1763, he printed his great
masterpiece. After five years' labor, he produced
what might have been the most beautiful Bible yet
made. The contradiction was that Baskerville was an
atheist! And he was no closet unbeliever. He was an
He lived out of wedlock with his lifelong partner,
Sarah. That passes virtually without comment today,
but it was very radical for the eighteenth century.
And he railed against religion.
Before he died in 1775, he stipulated that he
should not be buried in consecrated ground. And
here the fun begins. Where to put John Baskerville?
First he was put in a mausoleum on his own land.
But the house was wrecked during the Birmingham
riots, and the land was sold. A developer
eventually cut a canal through the property. In
1821, workmen found Baskerville's lead-lined
Since it couldn't be buried in any consecrated
cemetery, it sat in a warehouse until a plumber put
it use as a workbench. But that finally became too
morbid even for him. The plumber cast about, trying
to find a churchyard that would take the coffin.
At last, a bookseller came to his rescue.
The fellow sneaked Baskerville into his family
crypt at Christ Church. When the church was razed,
Baskerville was moved from that consecrated spot to
Warstone Lane Catacombs, a consecrated labyrinth
where he remains today. And we're left with the
oddest linguistic echoes.
We cannot help but think of Conan Doyle's story
The Hound of the Baskervilles. And it
calls up Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of
Heaven -- about an atheist fleeing God:
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; ...
Well, I can only hope the bones of the man who gave
us such lovely printing have found peace in the
consecrated dirt of that particular labyrinth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This site from Birmingham, England, has excellent
material on Baskerville, including a brief biography
by Deborah Cooper: More about, John Baskerville
I was first led to Baskerville by F. J. Romano's
entertaining article The Strange Tale of
Baskerville's Body. Electronic Publishing,
September, 2002, pg. 52.
For the full text of The Hound of Heaven,
by Francis Thompson, see, e.g.:
The Hound of Heaven
Above, Baskerville's setting of lines from Virgil's
Georgics I, in two fonts. The translation
mirrors the effort Baskerville put into everything he
did. It also provides a remarkable statement of the
more hopeless implications of what would later become
the Second Law of
Speed all things to the worse, and backward
Glide from us; even as who with struggling oars
Up stream scarce pulls a shallop, if he chance
His arms to slacken, lo! with headlong force
The current sweeps him down the hurrying
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.