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
But he died soon after reaching Massachusetts. 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
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
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:
And civilization did indeed bud forth
from that modest little book.
Truth from the earth, like to a flower,
shall bud and blossom show.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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
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.
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.
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