Bell, Thomas

Bell, Thomas
SUBJECT AREA: Paper and printing
fl. 1770–1785 Scotland
Scottish inventor of a calico printing machine with the design engraved on rollers.
In November 1770, John Mackenzie, owner of a bleaching mill, took his millwright Thomas Bell to Glasgow to consult with James Watt about problems they were having with the calico printing machine invented by Bell some years previously. Bell rolled sheets of copper one eighth of an inch (3 mm) thick into cyliders, and filled them with cement which was held in place by cast iron ends. After being turned true and polished, the cylinders were engraved; they cost about £10 each. The printing machines were driven by a water-wheel, but Bell and Mackenzie appeared to have had problems with the doctor blades which scraped off excess colour, and this may have been why they visited Watt.
They had, presumably, solved the technical problems when Bell took out a patent in 1783 which describes him as "the Elder", but there are no further details about the man himself. The machine is described as having six printing rollers arranged around the top of the circumference of a large central bowl. In later machines, the printing rollers were placed all round a smaller cylinder. All of the printing rollers, each printing a different colour, were driven by gearing to keep them in register. The patent includes steel doctor blades which would have scraped excess colour off the printing rollers. Another patent, taken out in 1784, shows a smaller three-colour machine. The printing rollers had an iron core covered with copper, which could be taken off at pleasure so that fresh patterns could be cut as desired. Bell's machine was used at Masney, near Preston, England, by Messrs Livesey, Hargreaves, Hall \& Co in 1786. Although copper cylinders were difficult to make and engrave, and the soldered seams often burst, these machines were able to increase the output of the cheaper types of printed cloth.
1783, patent no. 1,378 (calico printing machine with engraved copper rollers). 1784, patent no. 1,443 (three-colour calico printing machine).
Further Reading
W.E.A.Axon, 1886, Annals of Manchester, Manchester (provides an account of the invention).
R.L.Hills, 1970, Power in the Industrial Revolution, Manchester (provides a brief description of the development of calico printing).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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