Some American students, recently discovering Madras, learnt that an American printing press was established in Madras as much as 170 years ago. But the American Mission Press set up in Popham’s Broadway in 1838 was not the first American printing press in India.
When two Americans informally established an `American Mission’ in Bombay in 1813, they followed it up five years later by founding a printing press and printing much material in Marathi. S.B. Fairbanks, who was in charge of this press at the time, introduced lithographic printing in India here in 1854.
The American Mission Press (AMP) in Madras was run by P.R. Hunt who designed and developed the finest Tamil founts cut up to that time; in fact, the founts he designed survived well into the modern day, made popular by the Linotype Company.
The Bible in Tamil was the first book published by the AMP. It came out in 1840. The second editions of G.U. Pope’s Tamil Grammar and Tamil Handbook came out from the Press in 1858 and were followed the next year by C.T.E. Rhenius’s Tamil Grammar. But the most important publication of the AMP was released three years later.
The Rev. Dr. Myron Winslow’s Tamil-English Dictionary, work on which Winslow started with Arumuga Navalar at the older American Mission in Jaffna and which they both continued in Madras, was released in 1862. It provided the English meanings for nearly 67,500 Tamil words.
The Winslow Dictionary is as much of a classic for the quality of its lexicography as it is for its printing, particularly the typesetting, considering it was all composed by hand.
The American Mission had bought this Press from the Church Mission in Madras in 1838. By 1866, the American missionaries had begun moving out to the districts and the Press was offered for sale. It was bought by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) for Rs.40,000 that year and, together with the SPCK’s own printing press that Fabricius had started in 1761 (as the Vepery Press), developed as the Diocesan Press, which survives today as the CLS Press.