REPRINTED FROM TYPE & PRESS / COURTESY APA
The Kelly B (1914-1937) had a top speed of 3600 iph and was available with or without extension delivery.

The Rise & Fall

of the Kelly Press


By Fred Williams
Editor & Publisher, Type & Press
Spring 1985


Between the years of 1880 and 1910 the American pressman had to contend with many ill-designed and hastily built machines. Although there were a few well-built presses, many unknown companies made clamshells of light construction, in which the platen flapped back and forth on hinges attached to its lower sides, resulting in an uneven impression.

Most cylinder presses of this era were handfed and of the drum type, employed to print weekly newspapers. On either of these types of presses, with their inadequate inking trains, the frustrated pressman was forced to dig deep into his bag of tricks to obtain a decent impression.

Proprietors of small job shops longed for a "pony" automatic cylinder press that would give hairline register, but could be set up almost as quickly as a platen jobber. William Kelly had just such a press in mind.

Kelly, who was born in Kansas in 1869, was a practical mechanic and a salesman for American Type Founders. In 1911, he conceived the idea of a small two-revolution automatic cylinder press he believed would meet the requirements of most commercial printers.

After convincing ATF that his press would be profitable, Kelly developed his 17x22, three-roller flat bed cylinder press with an automatic feeder and jogger (or an extension delivery). It could handle stocks ranging from onion skin to four-ply poster board. It had a top speed of 3600 impressions per hour.

The Kelly press employs a small cylinder revolving in stationary bearings over a horizontal bed that supports the type form. The bed moves back and forth under the inking rollers with a reciprocal movement beneath the rotating cylinder. Grippers, closing on a sheet of paper, hold it against the turning cylinder, which applies sufficient pressure to print as it passes over the inked type form. Shooflies then lift the printed sheet off the cylinder after being released by the grippers and passed it on to the delivery.

Printers, upon learning of details of the new press, were so enthusiastic that over 2,000 were sold before it was advertised. This first model, oddly enough, was designated as the Series B.

The Kelly B has a bed 19 1/2x22 3/8 and will accept a sheet as small as 7 x 10 or as large as 17 x 22. Sheet detectors automatical1y stop the press if a sheet comes down torn or crooked!

In 1921 competition was encountered with the introduction of the unique Miehle Vertical press. Advantages claimed for it included: elimination of vibration and economy of floor space. The Vertical, handling a 13 1/2 x 20 sheet, had a top speed identical to the Kelly Style B - 3600 iph. ATF advertised that on their Kelly, corrections or changes could be made right on the press bed without having to remove the form to a stone. Also, a large form could be locked on the bed without a chase.

In comparing the platen and cylinder press, both have advantages and disadvantages. The platen press is more adaptable to printing short runs of small sheet sizes. Large sheet sizes and long runs will be better run on a cylinder. But it is in the printing of large solid forms and those containing halftones that the cylinder press has no equal.

The platen press obtains its impression by the impact of the flat platen, the entire surface of which must meet the type form with a single thrust of tremendous force. On the other hand the cylinder model obtains its impression by a rolling contact with the type form. Only a very small segment of the curved cylinder touches the type form at any one time.

The Kellys make two revolutions to each cycle of the bed. After each impressional roll, the cylinder raises to a non-printing position, allowing type and bed to return without printing on the tympan.

By 1922 more than 2500 Kellys had been sold and production at the ATF factory in Jersey City, N.J. was increased to 50 presses per month.

The overwhelming success of the Kelly B plus demands for a larger press along the same lines led to the development of the Kelly #2 in 1921. Handling a 22x34 sheet, it has a top rated speed of 3000 iph.

In an effort to supply the big demand for Kellys, in 1924 ATF built a new factory in Elizabeth N.J. The next year ATF introduced the Series A. Having most of the features of the larger models, it could run everything from a postcard to 13 1/2x20 sheet at up to 4500 iph. It was called the "Baby" Kelly.

In 1925 an odd model–the Kelly Automatic jobber–was introduced. A hybrid press, somewhat of a cross between a conventional cylinder press and the Miehle Vertical, the bed was slanted at 30 degrees! Forms were placed at the top of the press and the bed moved up and down on an angle. The inking system was comparable to earlier Kellys. It was claimed to be the fastest bed and cylinder automatic of that era. Intended as a competitor of the Vertical, sales were disappointing and production ceased after a few years.

Sales of Kellys soared and 1927 was the company's greatest year. Two years later the Kelly #1 was introduced. Accepting a sheet 22x28, it had a speed range of 2200-3600 impressions per hour.

In 1929 disaster struck ATF as the great depression settled like a cloud of doom over the world. In 1933 the company went into bankruptcy and moved into the Kelly Elizabeth, N.J. plant. The Jersey City factory was sold. The following year, William Kelly, who had headed the ATF Kelly Division, retired. But he continued to plan improvements on his press until his death in 1949. By this time, more than 11,000 presses carrying his name had been sold!

In 1937 ATF discontinued the Series B press, replacing it with the redesigned C Kelly. New features included an improved inking system, tumbler grippers, automatic oiling of main bearings and a swingback and sheet slow-down delivery unit.

The Kelly Clipper, dubbed the "Pressman's Press," has an interesting background. Developed in 1938–the Golden Age of the China Clipper–ATF ran a national contest wherein pressmen were invited to contribute ideas to the designing of this press. The Clipper was the end result. With a speed range of 3000-5000 iph this press could handle sheets from 3 1/2x5 1/2" up to 14x2O 1/2". It was one of the first presses to come with stream feeding and chain delivery. The Clipper was not too successful and manufacture was halted three years later.

But by now many printers, in order to diversify, began shifting to offset presses. To enter this new field quickly, ATF in 1938 purchased Webendorfer Wills Co. of Mt. Vernon, N.Y. This company had been manufacturing their "Chief" offset presses since 1930. ATF then built both Chiefs and Kellys.

The end of World War II brought an end to the restrictions on non-defense manufacture, allowing production of Kelly presses to resume. In 1949 the Kelly #3 made its debut. The largest and last model of the line–a 25x37 machine, it is believed to have been designed as a result of New York printers' requests for a press that would circumvent union manning requirement clauses as applied to 25x38 units.

Around 1954, increasing use of offset and stiffening resistance to required price increases, forced ATF to curtail all Kelly production in the U.S. The English firm of Vickers continued their manufacture. But the days of letterpress were fast running out. Sales continued to drop and in 1959 British production ended. The Kelly #3 and C were the last models made.

Although the Kelly press has not been made in the United States for over 30 years, it is neither gone nor forgotten. Pressmen of another era will long remember William Kelly's press that was built by craftsmen & performed like a thoroughbred. The familiar "wooshwoosh, woosh-woosh" can still be heard in many small shops throughout the land as the faithful Kellys continue to roll off the most elegant of impressions!

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The Kelly C has a swing-back delivery unit
The Clipper, fastest of the Kellys, also featured stream feeding and chain delivery