The Great Colt's
Armory War!

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Published Winter, 1983

Printing's lusty past was punctuated by disputes between individuals, manufacturers and typefounders. The fights ranged from petty jealousies to legal battles over prices, copyright violations, patent infringements, etc. None of these battles were more furious than the war that erupted about 1885 between the promoters of the Colt's Armory and the Universal presses.

In spite of the fact that Merritt Gally and John Thomson worked on the Universal press together, they had a burning hatred for each other most of their lives. The death of Gally did not end the feud. After the older man died in 1916, Thomson continued to relate in blistering terms of how he hated his ex-partner.

Merritt Gally, undoubtedly an inventive genius, was born in 1839. When only 11 years old he went to work for a printing firm in Rochester, N.Y. After becoming a journeyman, he acquired additional skills in the art of cutting wood blocks and the machinist's trade. Later he joined his brother who operated a weekly newspaper. During his lifetime he was issued over 500 patent cla;ms in the U.S. alone!

After attending a theological seminary, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. While here, John Thomson, a Scottish ernigrant lad, was taken by his parents to hear the Reverend Gally preach. For some unknown reason, it was hate at first sight!

The minister assisted a parishioner in building a hand press in the village blacksmith shop and while so engaged, developed the principles of a press that became later known as the Universal.

Prior to the invention of Gally's press, most job presses were made with either hinged platens (clam -shells) or beds hinged at the lower ends of long supporting legs (Gordons) so that when the bed met the platen, the two may not have been exactly parallel. This was rectified by adjustment of the platen or by changing the amount of tympan packing used. But printers realized that for the finest kind of work, parallel impression was superior.

The platen of the Universal Press rolled up until it became vertical when about an inch from the form. From this position it was pulled directly parallel with and toward the form. The platen rested on rockers, its movement being controlled by heavy side arms connected to eccentric cams.

Instead of the customary ink disk, rollers were supplied directly by a fountain and the cylindrical ink distribution system was located directly above the type form.

The Universal was heavier, slower and more costly than the clam-shell or Go--don presses, but with its superior ink distribution and parallel impression, it was capable of a tremendously powerful and rugged impression.

Eventually the reverend's voice failed, forcing him to give up the ministry. About 1873 he put the finishing touches on his press and opened a salesroom in New York City to exhibit his parallel impression machine. Patents had been granted in 1869.

Without any important changes in design his Universal press was sold over the years by various builders under the names: Colt's Armory, Victoria, Hartford, National and Laureate.

Rev. Gally was never a manufacturer but employed various sales agents and machine shops for distribution, sales and manufacture of his jobber.

The ex-minister at first licensed the firm of Hamilton and McNeal to arrange for the building of his press. After about 500 of them were made, the company failed and E. V. Haughwout of New York City, took over the license. They had about 350 Universals made before they too, became financially distressed. Both of these firms had subcontracted the actual manufacture to the Colt's Patent Firearms Mfg. Co., of Hartford, Conn.

As a result, Rev. Gally himself contracted with Colt's to build his press and he acted as his own sales agent.

The Universal press was enthusiastically endorsed by printers and within a decade Colt's had built over 2,000 of them.

For some unknown reason the same John Thomson who bated the clergyman when a boy, became manager of Colt's Universal Press Division. He also added some improvements to the press.

John Thomson, also an inventive man, was born in Foonabers, Scotland in 1853. He held patents on over 200 various devices and was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers as well as being consulting engineer to the New York Subway Commission.

Then an incident provoked the Universal-Colt's War. The two men had a dispute, fanning the flames of hatred between them.

When the patents on the Universal Press expired, Colt's and Thompson conspired to make the press themselves and freeze the clergyman-inventor out.

As Colt's owned all the patterns & manufacturing machinery, Gally was unable to obtain repair parts for his own presses. War was declared!

Gally fired the opening salvo of the hostilities by severing all connections with Colt's and arranging to have his press built in New Jersey. Advertisements in printing trade publications were full of warnings that legal troubles would come to anyone who purchased Colt's presses.

He also introduced an "improved" Universal model, fully covered by patents. It was made in four sizes: the No. 6, 8 x 12; No. 7, 10x15; No. 8, 12x18 and No. 21, 15x2l. Sales agents were

The American Type Founders Co. He followed up this attack by instituting a law suit charging Colt's Armory and Thomson with infringement of his "Universal" trade mark and breach of their original contract.

Thomson turned aside Gally's attacks and began manufacturing a press embodying most of the features of Gally's Universal. Press, calling it the Colt's Armory "Universal." He ignored the threats of lawsuits.

When the smoke of the battles cleared it was a complete victory for Thomson and Colt's Armory. The courts ruled that since the patents had expired, any firm could build the press. Furthermore, the legal ruling held that the word" Universal," rather than being a trade mark; simply designated a specific type of press.

In 1902 Thomson acquired the Colt's Press Division and built his own plant at Long Island City, N.Y. He dropped the "Universal" from the name, calling it the Colt's Armory press.

Gally's "New Universal" press was not much different from his original version. In 1910 he had arranged to have the National Machine Co., of Hartford, Conn., assemble his Universals.

In 1915 he sold all his interests in the press to the National organization. He died the following year. He was 78.

The National Company continued to build both the old and improved versions as the Hartford and National to distinguish them from the old and new models.

The Thomson Co. continued to make the Colt's Armory in four sizes: 8x12, 10x15, 13x19 as well as 14x22. Although the press continued to be sold after World War I, the day of the hand-fed jobber was fast fading away. The introduction of the automatic cylinder press hastened its demise. The company continued to manufacture presses for use in embossing, creasing, cutting, etc.

In 1923 the John Thomson Co. and the National Machine Company signed an armistice by merging to become the Thomson-National Press Co. John Thomson, 73, died in 1926.

The next year the firm purchased the factory of the Golding Manufacturing Co., builders of the famous Pearl and Golding presses at Franklin, Massachusetts. This company had been acquired by American Type Founders Company.

Thompson-National Co. continues to manufacture presses, but practically all are for die cutting, stamping and embossing.

They carry no inking systems and are used extensively in the carton manufacturing trade and for cutting materials too thick or stiff to be run on cylinder presses.

The Universal-Colt's press was a superbly designed mechanism & with its sophisticated inking system, powerful impression, parallel platen, it soon became a favorite of pressmen. For perfect presswork and fine work using wood-cuts, it never has been surpassed by any other platen press.

These presses were employed with outstanding success by the New York Public Library, San Francisco book printers Andrew Goyem and the Grabhorn Brothers. Elbert Hubbard of the Roycroft Press in East Aurora, N.Y. used these famous presses to produce his powerful impressions.

And so John Thomson, Merritt Gally and the great Colt's Armory-Universal War are long forgotten, faded away into the yellowing pages of history books...just another chapter in the engrossing heritage of Letterpress Printing.