Print History: Bhisotype - Bombay, London, New York

Shanker Abaji Bhisey was, perhaps, the only Indian to have attempted to radically advance printing technology in the early days of hot metal composing. Why then did his inventions, patented over a twenty-year period, not make a dent in the trans-continental printing market?

30 Jun 2024 | By Murali Ranganathan

Portrait of Shanker Abaji Bhisey and his wife, based on a photograph, circa 1910

It had been close to 450 years since Gutenberg had printed his Bible and inaugurated a new era of print in Europe. Even though there had been numerous innovations in the printing machines themselves, the technology for composing the text had hardly changed during this period. The text had to be manually composed using types for individual letters. And, after printing, the types had to be redistributed. It was only in the 1890s that this situation changed with the introduction of hot metal composing machines. Two competing technologies, both invented in the United States, fought for a share of the market. The Linotype, which cast a line of type in a single slug, was aimed at the newspaper market while the Monotype, which cast individual letters was more suited for job work. These machines made incredible fortunes for their inventors and early financial backers. A chance encounter with a Linotype machine in a London printing press in 1900 led an Indian man, who had no knowledge of printing, to grapple with the problems which dogged this new technology.  

On the second of December, 1901, less than two years after his first encounter with hot metal composing, Shanker Abaji Bhisey was granted a provisional patent for a ‘Type Making and Setting Machine’ by the UK Patents Office. Its construction was very different from the machines then available in the market. One of the primary innovations in the patent, according to the patent agents, was the “peculiar construction of the matrices having flexible stems and adopted to cast therefrom a properly justified line of selected letters of words either in a bar [like Linotype] or single types [similar to Monotype].” Bhisey had, by early 1901, named this machine ‘The Spasotype Composing Machine’, which, he believed, would “supplant the Linotype, Monotype, Thorn, Wick’s Rotary Type-founder, and all similar machines.” Bhisey made many claims for the Spasotype: it would be of a compact size; it would require comparatively less power to operate; and, unlike the Monotype and Linotype machines then in the market, it could be easily adapted to cast Indian scripts. According to a prospectus issued to solicit investments in the venture, the Spasotype could be manufactured at a cost of USD 250. In comparison, a Linotype which cost USD 1,200 to produce was being sold at USD 3,200 and the company was raking in a million dollars every year and struggling to meet the demand for its machines. The Spasotype immediately attracted the attention of numerous parties on both sides of the Atlantic. Some, like Linotype, were connected with the printing sector, and many others were financial speculators. Bhisey’s technological innovation could not have come a moment too soon and it did seem that he had a winner on his hands. 

A prototype of the Bhisotype Casting and Composing Machine (before 1916)

A prodigy in Bombay
Shanker Abaji Bhise (1867–1935) was born in the Bhuleshwar neighbourhood of Bombay in a prosperous Marathi-speaking family belonging to the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu community. Though he did not attend any technical school, Bhise was mechanically inclined from childhood. He was an autodidact, tinkerer and experimenter who loved to get under the skin of machines. His interest in engineering technology was, perhaps, exceeded by his love for clairvoyance, hypnosis, mesmerism and many other forms of thaumaturgy and legerdemain. He was always performing: first at home as a boy, then in the neighbourhood as a teenager, and by the time he was in his twenties, in the courts of Indian princes and at the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress. In 1895, he accompanied the Maharaja of Patiala to London, where he performed shows to popular acclaim. The connections he made through these public performances would later prove useful to him in his career as an inventor. Not only did the elite members of his audience open doors for Bhise, a few of them also invested in his ventures. 

Bhise also led a parallel life where he held a day job at the Accountant General’s office in Bombay. He founded a ‘Scientific Club’ in 1893, and, from 1894, edited Vividha Kalaprakash, a monthly Marathi magazine devoted to innovations and technology which survived for ten months. He was also involved in a leather factory and a glass production venture. It was around this time that he began registering patents. His first patents included an automatic station indicator for the railways and a turban tying machine. Bhise, however, does not seem to have invested much effort in commercialising these patents. He was more interested in the next invention. After having won a prize of £10 in an international competition to design a weighing machine, Bhise’s credibility as an inventor was cemented. In 1899, he could find supporters in Bombay, such as Narottam Morarjee Goculdas and Dinshaw Edulji Wacha, who were willing to finance his stay for a year or two in London, then the metropolis of the world, where he would have more opportunities to further his talents. Though he would come back to Bombay every few years, London would be home for the next fifteen years. 

London calling
In his first few years in London, Bhisey (now spelt with a terminal ‘y’) patented a variety of inventions. These included ‘An Improved Device for use in Fastening Collars, Gloves, Boots or the like’; ‘New Instrument for Curing or Alleviating Headache’; ‘Bhisey’s Improved Bust-Improver’; and ‘New or Improved Levigating or Pulping Machine’. Some of these patents may have had commercial possibilities but Bhisey does not seem to have pursued them assiduously. The only invention which had immediate possibilities of becoming a commercial success was the Vertoscope, “a combined shop window attraction and advertiser.” Retailers had shown great interest in the product, which was displayed at an exhibition in the Crystal Palace in March 1901, and Bhisey felt that annual profits would not be less than £2000. 

It was around this time that Bhisey reconnected with Dadabhai Naoroji to whom he had introduced himself two years earlier when he first arrived in London. Naoroji was, perhaps, the most influential Indian then resident in London and Bhisey hoped that he would advise him on how to proceed forward with the Vertoscope. Naoroji advised Bhisey to reject all offers for the purchase of the patent rights and suggested that Bhisey bring the product to the market himself. Naoroji, a businessman with fifty years of experience, was also willing to finance the initial expenses as a financial speculation. Bhisey’s work on the Vertoscope was valued at £300 and Naoroji would contribute a matching amount. The Bhise’s Patent Syndicate thus came into existence. Though formed to exploit the Vertoscope patent, its remit expanded to include all of Bhisey’s innovations, especially the Spasotype. 

The financial arrangements of the Syndicate were such that Bhisey had to survive on a meagre living allowance for years while Naoroji had to continue funding the operations without a terminus. Over a period of seven years, Naoroji invested £ 2,600 in the Syndicate. During these years, Bhisey continued to work on the type casting and composing machine, which was now known as the Bhisotype. In 1908, a working prototype was finally ready to be evaluated by printing practitioners. It created quite a flutter in the world of printing. For example, the London correspondent of The Inland Printer, an American trade journal, gushed about the new machine: “A SURPRISE is about to be sprung on the trade in the form of a new typecasting and composing machine which, even in its initial stage, seems to bid fair to prove a formidable competitor to the existing appliances. The inventor has been working very patiently upon it for some years past, but it is only this week [in
August 1908] that he has seen fit to take others into his confidence and show the machine at work.” He then goes on to describe the machine. 

It is somewhat difficult to describe an apparatus of this class in words; to grasp its possibilities it has to be seen in actual operation; but, briefly described, it may be said to consist of the usual melting-pot, a powerful ejector pump, and a series of type-molds, thirty in all, arranged side by side in a long mold, the construction of which is one of the patentee’s own ideas. This mold contains thirty matrices, and at each revolution of the pump thirty types are cast. These types may be either all the same letter or a variety of letters, as desired. By building the machine with a double pump, a second mold can be added, thus giving a casting capacity at each stroke of sixty letters; but even in its present state the machine is capable of casting two thousand five hundred separate types per minute, all completely finished and ready for use by the compositor.

By this time, Dadabhai Naoroji had retired from public life and returned to India. He was no longer in a position to fund the Syndicate and The Bhisotype Limited, formed in 1905 or thereabouts, had not raised enough capital to sustain the venture. Bhisey, now rendered destitute, had no option but to return to India. Just before his departure to Bombay, Ratan Tata, the leading Indian industrialist, promised to step into Naoroji’s shoes if his technological advisor approved the product. On the ship back home, he encountered Gopal Krishna Gokhale, an earlier acquaintance from his days as a performer. Gokhale became the go-between for Bhisey, Tata and Naoroji as the terms of the Tata-Bhisotype Syndicate were finalised. It provided a new lease of life for Bhisotype but Bhisey himself would have to scrounge around as he did in the previous decade. The Tata-Bhisotype Syndicate survived until 1915, when Tata’s London representative stopped financial assistance and deprived Bhisey of his workshop. In disgust, Bhisey left for the United States, an option he had been considering since 1905, to complete the development of his machine. He wrote to Ratan Tata numerous times to settle the affairs of the Syndicate but to no avail. He travelled back to London in October 1917 to meet with Tata but they could not find a way forward to work together. 

Redemption in New York
Bhisey had been in touch with numerous Americans in the past decade and could soon find his feet in the new continent. After he first arrived in New York in 1916, Bhisey began negotiating with the Universal Type Machine Company to acquire his patents and the Bhisotype. The directors of Universal were keen to unite forces and form the Bhisey Universal Type Casting Company. However, Bhisey was too scrupulous to conclude any arrangement as long as the Tata-Bhisotype Syndicate was in existence. Once his affairs with the Tatas were finally sorted out, Bhisey was free to make fresh arrangements to bring his type caster to the market. In June 1918, while the final months of the First World War were playing out, Bhisey and his family left London and undertook the risky journey across the Atlantic to New York. Their ship narrowly escaped being sunk by a German U-boat. 

For the first time in his life, Bhisey did not have to contend with advice or funding from extremely influential Indians such as Gopalkrishna Gokhale (died 1915), Dadabhai Naoroji (died June 1917) or Ratan Tata (who would die on 5 September 1918). Bhisey only had to deal with hard-nosed American businessmen who were willing to expeditiously evaluate the commercial viability of new inventions and take substantial business risks. 

During his London sojourn, Bhisey had been in communication with Charles B Slaughter, the representative of the Universal Type Machine Company which had expressed an interest in investing in his patents and typecasting machine. On reaching New York, Bhisey discovered that his potential partners had tired of waiting for him to return. In June 1918, the Universal Type Machine Company had acquired the Thompson Type Machine Company which had recently introduced a new type caster which could produce types at a rapid rate. The business was now being conducted under the latter name. Slaughter was no longer interested in Bhisey’s patents and accused him of wasting their time from April 1917 to April 1918. Bhisey was adrift once again. 

War restrictions also precluded the raising of capital even if Bhisey could find the investors for a new venture. However, after the armistice of November 1918, the capital market was free to make fresh investments. As there was a demand for all kinds of type casters in the market, Bhisey could finally raise the funds for a company which would manufacture and market his type casting machine. The Bisey Ideal Type-Caster Corporation was incorporated in mid-1920. Shanker Abaji Bhisey (who now spelt his name Sunker A Bisey) was a director of the company and its designated technical expert. Of the 10,000 shares of the company, a quarter was designated as ‘preferred stock’, each share of USD 100 redeemable for USD 105 after three years, bearing 8% interest per annum with no voting rights. However, the initial subscription was limited to USD 75,000. The details of Bisey’s financial arrangements with the company are not known but he must have had a share in the equity and also have drawn a salary as an employee. The Bhisotype, a product competing with Monotype and Linotype and aimed at printers, was dropped in favour of a type casting machine whose customers would be type foundries. The first version of the Bisey Ideal Type Caster was introduced in the market in August 1921. It was enthusiastically received in the market and Bhisey continued to work on improvements and variations. 

The market for typecasting machines was rapidly evolving in the 1920s. Charles Slaughter, who headed the Thompson Type Machine Company, felt that the Bisey Ideal Type Caster would eat into the market share of the Thompson Type Caster. He, therefore, proposed a merger of the two companies in 1922. Initially, a joint venture company was formed which was based in Chicago. Bhisey was not too keen to move to Chicago, and, a few months later, when Thompson engineers concluded that the Bisey Ideal Type Caster was inferior to that of Thompson, Bhisey recommended that the joint venture be dissolved. The directors constituted a technical committee comprising of experts on Monotype and Linotype who certified that the Bisey Ideal Type Caster performed as per its claimed specifications. In October 1922, over twenty years after his first patent in the arena of printing technology, Bhisey filed his final patent for lubrication of moulds in a type casting machine.

By 1924, the operations of the two companies were merged and business was carried on under the name of Thompson Type Machine Company. Bhisey continued to be associated with the company as a technical expert. The Thompson Type Machine Company was, in turn, acquired by the Lanston Monotype Machine Company in 1929. Even though it competed with their own type casting machine, Monotype did not make any major changes to the Thompson Type Caster and marketed it in conjunction with its Monotype keyboard. The Thompson Type Caster, incorporating many of Bhisey’s technological innovations, was a very versatile machine and its type production rate was one of the fastest in the market. Monotype continued to market the machine until the late 1960s. 

Thompson Type Caster (1925)

Printing technology was just one of the areas which exercised Bhisey’s mind. In New York, he turned to chemicals in a big way. In 1917, while trying to extricate himself from the Tata-Bhisotype Syndicate, Bhisey developed a formulation for washing powder. He sold the rights to the formulation for a handsome sum. As far back as 1914, he had formed a company to sell a patent medicine which he initially marketed as a cure for malaria. It was used as a topical unguent during the First World War. After coming to New York, he reformulated it as a cure-all, especially for dental ailments. It was marketed under the brand name Atomidine, and is still sold as a dietary supplement. His interests in the paranormal continued to intensify with the passage of years, and culminated in the invention of an Ouija board which could mechanically transcribe the messages received from the nether world. As a project of his Lotus Philosophy Centre, Bhisey designed a lotus-shaped ‘Universal Shrine’ which was much acclaimed in spiritual circles. 

When he died in 1935, Bhisey must have been satisfied with his life’s work even though none of his inventions made him rich. His long involvement with the world of print was perhaps the only blip in an otherwise successful career as a public performer and innovator. Saddled with sobriquets such as ‘the Indian Edison’ or honorifics like ‘Professor’ and ‘Doctor’, Bhisey’s performance, over a period of two decades and more, as a technological innovator of print was underwhelming. Was it because he was consistently unlucky in his choice of advisors? Or was it that his Indian financial investors did not bring enough to the table? Or was he not adroit enough to keep pace with the rapid developments happening in the world of print? In sum, the Bhisotype and its inventor, Shanker Abaji Bhisey, merit only a footnote in the history of printing technology. n

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