Friedrich Koenig's final resting place on the grounds of the Oberzell monastery

On the 250th Birthday of Friedrich Koenig: Inventor, Businessman, Visionary

It was one of the defining revolutions in media history: during the night from 28 to 29 November 1814, the London newspaper The Times was, for the first time, printed on a steam-powered press – and heralded the arrival of a whole new era. The high-speed cylinder press was capable of printing an incredible 1,100 sheets of paper per hour and helped make printed products accessible to the broader population. It is not really surprising that the first mechanised printing press entered production in England, the motherland of the industrial revolution. That the technology came from Germany, on the other hand, probably raises a few eyebrows. It was the ingenious inventor Friedrich Koenig who revolutionised the world of printing that night. And we will be remembering the 250th anniversary of his birth on 17 April 2024.

People & Professions
Read time: approx. 6 minutes

Childhood and education

As the son of a family of farmers, Friedrich Koenig wasn’t actually predestined for the career that lay ahead of him. It was a stroke of good fortune that his talents were recognised at an early age, which allowed him to enjoy the privilege of private tuition from the local priest. His grammar school teachers also commended his extraordinary grasp of mechanics and mathematics. After completing a book-printing apprenticeship with the renowned printing company Breitkopf & Härtel in just four-and-a-half years, he dreamed of opening a bookshop and print workshop of his own. As an extramural student of Leipzig University, he continued to build up his knowledge. To such an inquisitive mind, it seemed inexplicable that the commonly used methods of printing had remained fundamentally unchanged ever since Johannes Gutenberg had invented the manual press in the 15th century.

Fascinated by the idea of harnessing mechanisation to increase printing speeds, his travels eventually brought him to Suhl, a small town on the edge of the Thuringian Forest. Suhl was widely known for its well equipped workshops and advanced knowledge in the field of mechanics. It was here that Koenig designed his first printing press, which was to be called the ‘Suhl press’, a new kind of manually operated press with an automatically functioning inking unit. But success remained elusive. None of the printers he approached were interested in the press, and even Koenig himself was rather disappointed with the poor print quality of the primarily wooden construction. In the end, the Suhl press remained unfinished, but it did prepare the ground for further developments in printing machinery. And it also made Friedrich Koenig aware of what was still lacking in Germany at that time: the necessary capital and, above all, an industrially developed production environment.

London: new partners and new perspectives

In 1806, Friedrich Koenig therefore moved to England. While working at a job in a London bookshop, he made the acquaintance of the prominent English printer Thomas Bensley. The latter not only drew attention with his famous name, but also possessed significant financial means and believed firmly in Koenig’s inventions. The two men already signed a business contract covering the use of Koenig’s developments in 1807. Their future partnership remained strained and conflict-laden, but for Friedrich Koenig, Bensley was the decisive door-opener without whom the history of printing would probably have taken an entirely different course.

His relationship with Andreas Bauer, whom he also met in London, was quite the opposite. The Stuttgart-born precision engineer was more than just his friend and later business associate. They complemented each other with their individual passions and abilities: Friedrich Koenig as the eloquent and restless visionary alongside Andreas Bauer as a more cautious and introverted pragmatist whose sound craft skills enabled him to realise his partner’s ideas.

The breakthrough: the Times press

Together, they designed a platen press that was very similar to the Suhl press, but was no longer a wooden construction. It now featured a cast-iron frame and also incorporated various mechanical improvements. Koenig received his first patent for this press, but it was not until 1812 and the unveiling of a cylinder printing press that he achieved his breakthrough. With an output of 800 sheets per hour, it more than doubled the production output of a conventional manual press. The primary goal had been attained.

John Walter II, the publisher of The Times, was the first customer to place an order for Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s revolutionary invention. The steam-powered double-cylinder press manufactured for his newspaper was even capable of printing 1,100 sheets per hour and thus broke all existing records. The operating costs were considerable, but the enormous speed and at the same time excellent print quality more than made up for that. During the night from 28 to 29 November 1814, The Times became the first daily newspaper in the world to be printed on such a press. It was nothing short of a sensation – and John Walter II was so delighted that he mentioned Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer by name in his editorial.

Return to Germany

Friedrich Koenig was denied the full fruits of this triumph, however. His all-powerful sponsor Thomas Bensley frustrated his plans to establish series production of the new press. In contrast to Koenig, who would have liked to see his technical innovation spread all over England, he was primarily concerned with cementing his own printing company’s position of dominance. The dispute over use of his patents and the terms of a new business contract brought Koenig to his knees. Disillusioned, he turned his back on London in 1817 and returned to Germany.

There, he purchased a secularised monastery in Oberzell near Würzburg in order to set up his own printing press factory together with Andreas Bauer – an ambitious undertaking in a region that had, until then, been devoted to wine-growing, and all the more so considering the still-backward state of industrialisation in Germany. After a few initial difficulties, printing presses manufactured in Oberzell did, however, gain an increasing foothold from the early 1820s onwards. One by one, all the major printing companies in Germany and its neighbouring countries moved to mechanised production and brought the still young company Koenig & Bauer a level of prosperity that only began to wane in the last few years of Koenig’s life.

A family man: brief happiness and early death

Around that time, with the company enjoying growing success, Friedrich Koenig learned of the hardships faced by his boyhood friend Johanna Jacobs, who was living in relative poverty as a widowed mother of four children. Determined to offer his support, he visited her in Suhl, where he met and fell love with her daughter Fanny. Despite the fact that Koenig was significantly older, they married in 1825 and Fanny followed her husband to Oberzell. Three children were born, but their happiness as a family was to be short-lived. After just eight years of marriage, Friedrich Koenig succumbed to a heart disease in 1833. The economic problems of his company had caused him additional stress over the last few years of his life. Press sales had slumped dramatically, and exports to the important French market had dried up completely after the July Revolution in Paris. Koenig was laid to rest in the grounds of the Oberzell monastery.

In spite of these adverse circumstances, Friedrich Koenig’s achievements were preserved for posterity: Fanny Koenig continued the business together with Andreas Bauer and guided the company to a new heyday. Friedrich Koenig can therefore not only be remembered as the man who laid the foundations for what is today a global company group – it was with his invention of the cylinder press that he transformed the world of print and wrote a landmark chapter into media history.