Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 733:
FIRST U.S. PRESS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 733.

Today, we print books in a wilderness. 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.

In 1638, Mrs. Glover set up America's first press at the Massachusetts Colony's new college, Harvard. Mrs. Glover and her husband, the Rev. Jose Glover, had sailed from England with five children, a few technicians, and a printing press. Jose Glover was a noncomforming minister who meant to provide religious books and tracts for the Colony.

But he died on the ship across. So Mrs. Glover went right to work setting up the printing shop. Her chief assistant was the oldest technician, Stephen Daye. We now credit Daye, who could barely read or write, with being America's first printer. And Mrs. Glover? Well, I don't even know her given name.

Harvard's first president, Henry Dunster, took an interest in the press and in Mrs. Glover. They married three years later. By then, the press had already issued a broadside, The Freeman's Oath, an 8-page Almanac for 1639, and the famous Bay Psalm Book.

The Bay Psalm Book was both ambitious and crude -- a formidable achievement under the worst conditions. It was 5 by 7½ inches, just shy of 300 pages, and loaded with errors. It held only the rough-hewn Psalm paraphrases. There was no music in the early editions. For a while, the words had to serve as mnemonics for those sturdy tunes we still sing today.

They printed 1700 copies. The 11 copies that survive are worn and battered. They were well-used. By now, both the words and the unwritten tunes are deeply woven in the American fabric.

Mrs. Glover died two years after she married Dunster. Daye's son, Matthew, took over the trade. Life was short back then. He died in 1649, and the press passed to one Samuel Green.

Green produced a remarkable work in 1663, only a generation after the Pilgrims landed. He printed 1500 copies of a Bible in the Algonkian Indian language on that crude wooden press. The full title (and I make no claims for my pronunciation) was,

Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, Naneeswe Nukkone Testament, Kah Wonk Wusku Testament
Thus the nameless Mrs. Glover laid her hand on that hard new land. To avoid reliving our own pre-history we needed the printed word. She gave it to us. A century later Ben Franklin joined the same trade and used it to cut us loose from England.

We turn pages in an old copy of the Bay Psalm Book. One line jumps out. It catches the driving impulse of these people who meant to build their new Jerusalem in the cold forests:

Truth from the earth, like to a flower,
shall bud and blossom show.
And civilization did indeed bud forth from that modest little book.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Much is written about the origins of American printing. (Of course the Spanish printed material in Mexico long before this.) I've used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. See, e.g.,

Blumenthal, J., The Printed Book in America. Hanover, NH: The Dartmouth College Library, 1977.

The OATH of a Freeman. (notes by L.C. Wroth and M. B. Cary, Jr.) New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1939

Kimber, S.A., The Story of an Old Press. Cambridge, Mass.: The University Press, 1937, 1939.

This episode first aired in 1992. Now (2013) the Internet has provided us all with Mrs. Glovers name. It is Elizabeth (Harris) Glover. My thanks to Betty Gower for pointing this out.

The full title of the Bay Psalm Book was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Such Psalm paraphrases were a variable art form from the 16th century well into the 18th. By the way, Matthew Day dropped the terminal e from his father's name, Daye.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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