A wide range of different workers have contributed to the printing industry over its 500 year history, and the skills needed have evolved over time. Change has been particularly fast since the middle of the twentieth century.

Originally printing techniques were imported into Scotland from France, where Androw Myllar trained, but in later centuries some Scottish printers were responsible for technical innovations, for example:

  • In the late eighteenth century William Ged invented the stereotyping process, although his attempts to exploit it commercially were a failure and left him embittered, the process has been widely used since.
  • Thomas Nelson, son of the founder of Thomas Nelson & Sons, invented a rotary press: it was demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1855.  As he did not patent his invention, he did not reap any financial benefit from an invention from which the newspaper presses in use for the next 100 years were descended. This press is now in the National Museum of Scotland
  • Alexander Neill Fraser of the printing company Neill & Co, based in Edinburgh was an early pioneer of mechanical typesetting, inventing a machine for typesetting and distributing used type which predated the Monotype and Linotype systems.  The machines were not only used in their own works, but were sold elsewhere well into the twentieth century.
  • World famous printer-publishers based in Scotland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries include Bartholomews, Blackie, Collins and Nelsons.  A distinguished name from the eighteenth century is the Foulis Press of Glasgow, which produced beautifully typeset and carefully printed classical texts.

Information about printers who served in World War I is gradually becoming more available online. During the First World War, the printing industry in Scotland, along with the trade in the rest of Britain ‘suffered from diminished output, increased production costs, serious shortage of labour and restriction of paper supplies.’ (Gennard, Mechanical to digital, 2010, p,71) All branches of the industry were affected as men volunteered and later, were conscripted for war service, including in the munitions industry.

Some companies maintained rolls of honour listing casualties and those who had served in the war. Examples from the printing and allied trades can be found online in the National Library of Scotland’s Digital Gallery

Thomas Arthur Nelson, of the Edinburgh printer/publishing firm Thomas Nelson & Sons, served as a Captain in the Lothian & Borders Horse. He was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Arras, 9 April 1917. Details of his service are on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

He is also commemorated in the Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.