Controlling Dissemination Mechanisms: The Unstamped Press and the 'Net

Marc Demarest

August 1995


The Printing-press may be strictly denominated a Multiplication Table as applicable to the mind of man. The art of Printing is a multiplication of mind, [and] pamphlet-vendors are the most important springs in the machinery of Reform.

Carlile, on the unstamped press in the 1820s.



Information technology appears to be historically unprecedented, in large measure because people deeply involved in information technology tend to have no personal sense of history, no formal training in history, and a strong desire to believe the problems they grapple with are unique and unprecedented.

If you consider the 'Net -- or the Web, if you prefer -- as a dissemination mechanism, a machine for moving knowledge, as

  • a new dissemination mechanism
  • constantly expanding to fill the space available to it
  • without much in the way of rules, or canons or agreed-upon standards
  • increasingly accessible to the citizenry
  • threatening to both:
    • established dissemination mechanisms (the media, the educational system)
    • the government

    precisely because it is new and without any central control mechanism, any single point of failure

then it is quite clear that we have been here before.

What I want to suggest is that the 'Net is only the most recent example of a dissemination mechanism to (a) catch on, (b) become ubiquitous, (c) pose major problems for older, more established dissemination mechanisms, (d) be actively opposed by the state and other institutions and (e) win in the end.

I further want to suggest that we can tell, more or less, what will happen with contemporary problems like the Exon Act, the point of presence/ISP tax initiative, and the threat posed by the 'Net to traditional education by looking at analogies in earlier dissemination mechanisms.

Culture as Dissemination

Throughout human history, there have been such mechanisms: systems for moving knowledge from place to place. Roman imperialism was, to some extent, about co-opting and connecting local dissemination mechanisms, and the Roman Empire survived only so long as a Celtic manuscript or a Norse battle tactic could enter the system in Britain and appear in Rome or Carthage. The Arabian cultures that "carried off" Western knowledge at the beginning of the "Dark Ages" (dark, after all, because the light of knowledge had been withdrawn from the West) was simply a dissemination mechanism into which the West was not tapped, which it could not draw from effectively. The monastic system was, for quite a while, the only dissemination mechanism left to hold the West together, and its rules of entry and participation were exclusionary in the extreme.

The Renaissance was, at some level, the reconnection of the weak dissemination mechanism of the West with more robust mechanisms elsewhere: the Asiatic and Arabic merchants trading into the Italian states brought with them connections back into the Arabic dissemination mechanisms, which contained what were in many ways superior Western knowledge bases: think, for example, of the effect that the rediscovery of Vetruvius' work on architecture had on Renaissance designers and artisans.

By the middle of the 1700s, there was, for all intents and purposes, a single dissemination mechanism -- print media -- that covered the globe from the American colonies at the edge of the Western world to the Indian colonies and the "outposts of progress" in the Far East. Thomas Jefferson translates the works of the French Ideologues who are themselves reading Germans and Italians who are reading the Indian sacred texts and Chinese philosophical tracts: all linked together via the book, which is the package produced by the dissemination mechanism of the "civilized world": the press.

The Print Dissemination System

At this time -- the mid-1700s -- we are still a long way away from the book as we understand it today. At this time, books are written by authors, and printed in quires by printers who must purchase a license from the appropriate authorities (see John Milton's Areopagitica for a view of the dangers of press licensing -- "Truth needs no licensings to make her victorious. Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"). These unbound quires are sold under subscription or over the counter at the printers' to individuals who take the unbound quires to their bookbinders and have them bound to match the other volumes in their libraries. Diderot's famous Encyclopedia (the quintessential work of the late French Enlightenment, one of the beginnings of "modern thought") was printed in an edition of only 4250 copies, a huge press run for the time. William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), perhaps the seminal radical philosophical tract of the late Enlightenment, made him "instantly famous" according to contemporary commentators, yet its entire press run was well under 1000 copies. People whose personal books were numbered in the few hundreds of volumes were considered to have huge libraries. There were virtually no "public points of presence" for this dissemination mechanism: no public libraries, no private for-fee lending libraries to speak of, no book clubs, no reading societies.

The point: very few people, numerically, were tapped into this dissemination mechanism in any useful way, very few people fed the machinery, and the state -- in the form of licenses and inspectors -- kept the dissemination mechanism under close surveillance. Suppression, a countermeasure against dissemination that is present in some form whereven dissemination mechanisms appear, was a common practice on the part of the state; remember, for example, that many of the seminal works of the American Revolution -- Thomas Paine's Common Sense: Addressed To The Inhabitants Of America for example -- were suppressed by the British government: presses were broken up, type confiscated, quires burned, printers' licenses revoked.

At the end of the 1700s, a fundamental shift in the culture was under way. The fundamental drivers were:

  • changes in press technologies: the wooden press was limited by its fundamental instability to small press runs; type had for the most part to be cut by hand by people skilled in the jewelry trade or some related discipline; illustrations were a laborious hand-crafted process (see William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell or any of Hogart's famous etchings for 18th century novels) and paper had to be manufactured by hand at great expense. Between 1796, when Senefelder discovered lithography (which eliminated the need for a raised printing surface for illustrations) and the 1820s, when the first British publishers produced "trade press books" (books bound by the publisher for sale to unknown but imagined "consumers"), the technology of printing changed completely. Iron bed and frame presses replaced the wooden press en masse beginning in the late 1700s. Frederich Koenig figured out how to tap the new mechanical power sources and run a press off them at a speed of 800 sheets per hour, roughly 20 times the output of a manual press: from 1814 on, the London Times was printed by power press. The Fourdrinier paper-making machine, initially developed by Nicholas Robert, allowed paper to be made and fed directly into the power press as it ran. And most importantly, perhaps, stereotyping was perfected, and, for the first time, moveable type did not have to be kept in frames to reprint books. Instead, a wax impression was made of the moveable set type, an iron cast taken from the wax impression, and the original type broken up and redistributed. This reduced the investment any printer/publisher had to make in moveable type (which was expensive) and allowed for three things: longer press runs, since stereotypes were more durable than set moveable type, reprints of successful books (since the publisher did not have to incur the cost of retypesetting the book in order to print it), and larger catalogs, since a publisher could keep a book in the catalog without keeping precious type framed up for the text.

  • changes in literacy: in the wake of the French Revolution, various institutions -- the Anglican Church and the Dissenting religious movements throughout Europe prominent -- decided that the only way to prevent the "infection" of domestic populations by the disease of Radicalism was to make them literate. Richard Altick, the leading historian of the literarcy phenomenon in the UK, writes that the prevailing beliefe was that "If, however, the millions could be herded into classrooms, if only for a brief time, they could be permanently immunized against Jacobinism, radicalism, subversion, blasphemy, atheism, and every other ill to which they were exposed by the east wind of social change. Their native reason, however crude and untutored, could be depended upon to accept the truths of religion and society as laid down before them by the superior classes..." [1]. Literacy -- the ability to make sense of the printed word -- was, we need to remember, the key to enter the dissemination mechanism: one had to be able to read to tap into the machine. We don't have any really good data on literacy levels in, say, the UK, for the period 1780-1830 (remember that statistics, called "political arithmetic" for a lot of the 19th century, was invented as a science in the late 1700s, and was not practiced reliably until the second half of the 19th century), but here is a swag. In 1814, there were roughly 17 million people in the UK (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). 1.5 million of these were either upper- or upper-middle class, where the literacy rate was 75% or better. 2.8 million were shopkeepers or small farmers, with a literacy rate of 1 in 3 to 1 in 4. Roughly 12 million were "mechanics, artisans, meanials, servants, paupers and vagrants" a class with a literacy rate of perhaps 1 in 20. By 1850, if we were to look at those same classes, we would find literacy rates of around 90% for the upper/upper-middle classes, 75% for the skop-keeping/small-farmer class, and 50% for the "lower classes". More importantly, the size of each band has grown substantially creating by 1850 or so what Wilkie Collins, the popular novelist, called "the unknown public," a reading culture that bought his books in the tens of thousands.

  • changes in transportation: remember that the book and the newspaper and the magazine, the fundamental dissemination units of the print system, were very fragile and didn't handle transportation well. In 1750, it took 12 days to get a book from London to Edinburgh, by horse or mail coach; in 1830, the same book traveled from London to Edinburgh in 46 hours (2+ days); in 1850, the book reached Edinburgh in as little as 13 hours by train. At the same time, the places one could send anything directly expanded greatly as the rail system nosed its way into increasingly "small" places throughout Europe (and later the US). This allowed the dissemination mechanism to set itself up everywhere. A key feature of this increasing ubiquity of the dissemination mechanism was the circulating library, a private library that allowed mechanics and artisans to pay a smallish fee and "check out" books from the library, or have them sent to them wherever they were.The first of these appeared in 1817 (serving working men) and the big circulating libraries -- particularly Mudies -- virtually controlled the book trade by mid-century; if your novel didn't get picked up by Mudies, you were not likely to make any money. Free libraries began to appear in the second half of the 19th century and were ubiquitous by the end of the century. All this because, ultimately, books could be built better, built faster (by press and publishing technologies) and moved farther faster in larger quantities (by transportation and franchising technologies).

So, in 1780 we had a dissemination mechanism limited in material to what could be produced on hand-operated wooden presses with set moveable type, limited in scope to the major capitals of the Western world by a crude transportation system that prevented the mass transport of printed matter, and limited in audience to upper- and upper-middle class people who (a) could read and more importantly (b) had the leisure time to read.

Fifty years -- one and half generations later -- in 1830, we had a dissemination mechanism pumping out material produced on powered iron presses fed by stereotyping, lithography and manufactured paper, reaching nearly every substantial population center in the Western world, using a transportation system based on the railroads, and feeding a huge audience of upper-, upper-middle, middle and lower class readers who were, after 1830, targeted by publishers as distinct markets (a sure sign of a mature system).

The State's Response To The Broadening Of Dissemination

In between 1790 and 1830 or so, the state freaked out. The dissemination mechanism -- which it helped extend by increasing the literate population base -- was out of control, routinely publishing material deemed seditious, treasonable or dangerous, and reaching people who, in the opinions of those in power, had no business being tapped in to begin with.

The state's regulation of the dissemination mechanism took many forms:

  • copyright legislation which vested copyright in an owner perptually -- no firm or individual could publish a work except the copyright owner. By 1774, this was written out of the law.

  • licensing presses -- all presses had to be registered with a Press Office and be licensed to operate. This was unworkable by 1815, because hundreds of old wooden presses (which unlike their iron counterparts, could be dismantled and stuck in the back of a wagon in a few hours) were dumped on the market by licensed printers moving to steam-powered iron presses. The wooden presses were bought, in many cases, by "radical" political organizations which moved restlessly across the landscape, ahead of the magistrates, publishing all sorts of "educational" and political tracts. As a single illustrative data point, consider the year 1819: Blackwood's a reputable upper-middle class journal, sold in issues of roughly 4000 copies, while the Black Dwarf an (illegal) radical political journal, sold in issues of roughly 12,000 to working people, and William Cobbett's journal -- the most famous Radical journal -- was running at 40,000 to 60,000 copies per issue, distributed illegally by hand and in the mails.

  • taxing materials (or access). There were a series of Stamp Acts between the 1770s and 1819 that attempted to take printed materials out of the hands of the working class by making the paper used in books so expensive that the "cover price" of a book or journal would be far beyond the means of an average individual. There were a variety of responses to this: coffee houses, where one could go, have a drink and read a journal or magazine subscribed to "by the house" for a fee smaller than the cover price of the journal, reading societies and subscription societies, in which a group of individuals pooled economic resources to purchase a book or journal in common, and frequently read it aloud to one another, and alternate media: radical tracts were published on all sorts of material, including muslim and other cloth, which was not taxed, and some publishers sold other objects (like straw, matches and rocks), and gave away the printed material as a "bonus" to people buying the other item, thus evading the letter of the law entirely.

  • legal prosecution -- the state redefined sedition and/or treason to cover anything the State deemed threatening to itself, and began to prosecute publishers and editors. For the most part, civil juries refused to convict editors and publishers brought before them. The longest sentence meted out was about 5 years, for a hat-maker who sold a poem reading in part
  • Off with your fetters; spurn the slavish joke
    Now, now or never, can your chain be broke
    Swift then rise and give the fatal stroke.

    Seems rather tame in retrospect, eh? But remember that these kinds of works were associated, in the mind of the typical bureaucrat, with rick-burning, frame-breaking in factories, mass assemblies of working people (who often convened to hear such texts read aloud) and unionism.

  • state violence -- troops were used to break up reading societies, close coffee houses, and break up presses. People caught selling "seditious" tracts were flogged, put in the stocks, and on a few occasions, killed by troops. Shipments of books were "lost in the mail."

The last stand of the British government -- particularly instructive in our case because Britain was most insulated from radical politics during this period, and paradoxically most paranoid about Radicalism, and therefore most repressive -- occurred between 1831 and 1836, during the "War of the Unstamped" in which the government attempted to prosecute hundreds of editors and publishers using unlicensed presses and unstamped paper to produce radical journals, copies of the Bible and other religious tracts, English grammars (deemed particularly problematic since they let people teach each other and themselves), cheap editions of literary works (literature was then considered dangerous), encyclopedias (the invention of Radicals intent on getting knowledge into the hands and minds of the masses) and works of science. Measures were increasingly repressive: blanket legislation, random seizures, and then bulk persecutions under the repressive laws (and a few massacres by troops). By 1836, the state concluded that it could not withstand the popular disgust over its increasingly violent and irrational behavior, and the stamp and licensing acts were repealed. Lord Castlereagh, the motive force behind much of the uglier suppression, committed suicide by cutting his throat.

So What, Eh?

To me, history means something at the paradigmatic level: it tells us what can and cannot happen, and how, in broad terms, the future is likely to unfold. We do not produce history; we are produced by it.

What the 'Net is, is a worldwide free self-publication machine, open to anyone with the ability to write in a broadly-read language and a few simple technical tools. Worldwide samizdat for a worldwide audience. I read in the history of the dissemination mechanism that the 'Net is now in the process of replacing the future history of the 'Net.

Five years ago the 'Net was a dissemination mechanism for academics and scientists and nerds, access limited by those who could master arcane technologies using crude tools, and limited in content to what was after all pretty dry-as-dust stuff. The state -- which we need to remember built the 'Net for its own purposes -- was uninterested in it.

Come the prophets of the "Information Superhighway" including the State, encouraging people to make use of the new technology as the basis of future national competitive advantage (just as the Stated educated the masses to protect itself from revolution). Access points increase as new software and hardware technologies became broadly available, and as the electronic literacy level rises, thanks in part to the state's aggressive proselytizing of the "Information Superhighway" and its legislation deregulating infrastructure providers.

Now, as we approach the 20 million e-population mark, the State is getting worried: pornography, instructions for making bombs, paramilitary networks and the like. Strong cryptography is leaking over the borders. Where the previous dissemination mechanism undid notions of perpetual copyright, this one threatens to undo the whole notion of copyright. So the Law is invoked. The Exon act and the ISP tax legislation are almost an exact analogy of the Stamp Acts and press licensing: attempts to control, in the case of the Exon act, the dissemination of material considered dangerous to the State, and in the case of the ISP tax, the dissemination machinery itself. The Exon act's definitions -- which I understand class information on abortion, for example, as pornographic -- are every bit as broad and nebulous as the Stamp Acts' definitions, by design as well as by ignorance.

History suggests ugliness is coming, and in fact it has already come. The PRC, I am told, is preparing to turn off the Chinese gateways to the 'Net and strand its population in a state-controlled electronic backwater. US BBS operators have been raided by the FBI and local law enforcement, had their equipment confiscated, and in some cases have been physically hurt. AOL and Compuserve -- who are after all really not part of the revolution, but more like the publishers and printing operations, trying to capitalize on the new markets that e-literacy creates without running afoul of the State, having no principles other than commercial advantage -- have given in to state demands for control over the content in their stripmalls.

In short, it appears to me that we are in a period analogous to that just prior to the "War of the Unstamped" -- a period in which e-literacy and the 'Net have created a new dissemination mechanism that is interesting to traditional dissemination mechanisms, the Media and the Schools, and becoming frightening to the State. The legislation is being put on the books to enable the State to attempt various kinds of suppression, legal and physical.

If we're going to fight our own "War of the Unstamped" we need to first of all learn all we can about the last war of this sort, if only so we can extract tactical lessons from folks who did what we'll have to do. Tactics are important -- imagine if, instead of attempting to disseminate their materials in the equivalent of the city's main streets -- AOL and Compuserve -- child pornographers had constructed the electronic equivalents of Radical coffee-houses, and, instead of selling materials, had taken a page from the unstamped journal publishers and sold rocks or straw instead and given the materials away as a free premium.

We also need to spent a lot of time with the history of print media between 1880 and 1830 to realize that finally the State failed to suppress the unstamped press, and ultimately failed to control the popular print dissemination mechanism that the 'Net is replacing, because the Radical journalists believed in certain principles, and were, whatever their particular political stripe, all committed to absolute freedom for the dissemination mechanism. When they were brought before the Law, they didn't roll over; they took their licks and vowed to keep on doing what they were doing. Joseph Swann, sentenced under the 1819 Acts, responded to the Bench's sentence of three months' at hard labor for distributing (not writing or publishing, but distributing) unstamped journals, with these words:

I've nothing to thank you for, and whenever I come out, I'll hawk them again, and mind you, the first house I call on will be yours.

Do we believe like Swann did?


Richard D. Altick. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Reading Public, 1800-1900. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957. This is the best book of its kind of the birth of the "mass readership" for print media.

Warren Chappell. A Short History of the Printed Word. New York: Knopf, 1970. An excellent introduction to the development of print media technology.

Lucien Febre and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. London, Verso, 1984. The best social history of printing available anywhere.

Elie Halevy. A History of the English People in 1815. London: Ark, 1987. A detailed look at the English social structure at the critical juncture we're talking about.

J.L. and Barbara Hammond. The Town Laborer: The New Civilization, 1760-1832/ New York: Anchor, 1968. A good social history of the lower-middle and lower classes.

E.J. Hobsbawm. Industry and Empire (Volume 3 of the Pelican Economic History of Britain). London: Penguin, 1985. Great overview of the economic trends of the period.

____________. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. New York: Mentor, 1962.

S.H. Steinberg. Five Hundred Years Of Printing. London: Pelican, 1961. A good pan-European history.

E.P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class. New York, Vintage, 1963. The most famous work on the rise of working class culture in England.

George Woodbridge. The Reform Bill of 1832. New York: Crowell, 1970.


Last updated on 06-22-97 by Marc Demarest (

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