Misprints – a historical flash story

Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons.
A press from a later era – Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons.

William McKenzie sighed as he stared out the window of his father’s print shop. Once again, Alexander Davies was leading a small gang up the street, some in kilts and some in britches, mud and filth spattering their stockings. Davies’s daughter Mary had been William’s friend since their fathers shared their printing business, back when presses first reached the city and everyone was printing Bibles. He missed her more than he could say.

“Charles McKenzie, you wretch, I want my books back!” Davies yelled as he approached the shop. He had a cudgel in his hand. The men behind him carried torches and clubs.

“My books, more like!” William’s father leaned out of the window next to him, screaming for all the gathered crowds to hear. “I’ve the only licence to print that almanac in Edinburgh. Filling it with side notes and spelling errors doesn’t make your printing legal.”

The books lay in a heap at the back of the store, where they’d been hastily dumped after the midnight raid on Davies’s print shop. Filled with curiosity, William picked one up and started leafing through. Mary did most of Davies’s type-setting, and it wasn’t like her to make mistakes. Was something amiss?

“I’ll call out the justices on you!” Davies yelled.

“I’ll call the sheriff on you!” the elder McKenzie responded.

“I’ll sue you flat broke!”

“I’ll chase you out of town!”

“I’ll…” The back and forth continued with all the agile wit of two unimaginative elders, while William peered at the pages of the book. There were letters in the wrong places, but something about them seemed odd. There was only ever one to a page, and near the top, where they would be easy to find.

Grabbing a scrap of paper and a quill, William started noting them down. This looked like a code, and he could only think of one person who would put it there. If something was the matter with Mary then he desperately wanted to know.

“That’s it!” Davies screamed. “If you won’t come out then I’ll burn you out!”

A flaming torch sailed through the window and a junior printer rushed to douse the flames. Another landed on a heap of loose papers, which immediately ignited, sending men scurrying to beat out the fire. Smoke clouded the air, and there were sounds of violence from the direction of the front door.

Reaching a page without errors, William set the book aside and stared at the long string of letters in front of him: iloveyouwilliammckenziewillyourunawaywithmemary.

A quick slash of the pen divided them into words. His heart raced as the meaning sank in.

“What are you grinning for?” his father growled. “Grab a cudgel – our business is at stake!”

“Sorry, Pa.” Paper still in hand, William unbolted the shutters at the back of the shop and leapt out into an alley that stank of piss and pigs. He had never been happier in his life. “I’m off to business of my own.”

* * *


Copyright claims in 17th-century Scotland genuinely turned to violence at times, as well as many contentious legal disputes. Costs, profits and pride made for high stakes in the early days of print. Next time you see a video taken off YouTube for copyright infringement, be glad no-one got beaten up over it.

If you enjoyed this story then you might like more of my historical fiction – check out From a Foreign Shore, my collection of historical and alternate history stories, only 99c on Kindle.

The Otley Listening Machine – a flash steampunk story

Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons - ironically, it's one of those American machines.
Photo by Tim Green via Flickr Creative Commons – ironically, it’s one of those American machines.

Samuel Payne knew what he would miss most if the family business had to close. It was the fascinating smell of hot metal as it ran into the moulds of the machine works. He’d started bottling it, mixing it with the aetheric airs he’d ordered from London and Edinburgh. In the scant few hours of wakefulness when he wasn’t with his father managing their works or arranging shipments out of Otley, he watching the swirling currents in those jars of extraordinary air, the gas that lifted airships mixing with that of a Yorkshire factory floor.

Cursing to himself had become habit, a way of blowing of steam. He couldn’t do it in front of his father, a staunch Methodist, or the workmen for whom he was meant to set an example. So it was when he got home, exhausted and soaked with the sweat of the factory floor, that he let rip, swearing up a storm with only his aetheric jars for company.

It took him weeks to realised that the jars were swearing back. When he spoke, the air inside them shifted like a heat haze above a road, and as dawn broke that shimmer would return, setting the jars to vibrating. As they shook, they softly echoed his curses back at him.

This, he realised as he stared at them in amazement, this was the stuff of science.

It was the stuff of invention.

It was, he thought as he scribbled a design on a scrap of paper, the stuff that would save the factory.


“You’re talking nonsense, son,” David Payne shouted over the clatter of hammers.

“But father, we need something new,” Samuel said. “The American machines have already taken half our business.”

He waved at the empty side of the factory.

“Better printing presses,” his father said. “That’s what people will buy. Not your aetheric nonsense. Now get back to work.”


In the darkness before dawn, the sound of a single hammer echoed through the factory. It was interspersed with the squeak of bolts being tightened, the click of gears slotting into place, the rattle of machinery being tested.

Drive gears, drum flyers, interleaving arms, banjo pinions, piano plates… Samuel assembled familiar parts into a new and exciting device. On the top, perched on sensitive springs, sat his jars of aether.


“Most lads your age spend their spare time in the pub,” David Payne said. “Good lads your age spend it in church. But you…” He shook his head. “Well, you’ve done it now. Used up precious parts could have gone into orders. You may as well show me what you’ve built.”

Curious faces gathered around, every man in the works coming to see what Samuel’s strange machine, with its hundreds of tiny printing arms and its glass jars at the top, was going to do.

Samuel pulled the lever that started it up and steam poured through the pipes, just enough to power the device, not so much it would shake the jars. Carefully ascending the steps at the back, he leaned in close to the glass.

“Behold,” he said. “The Otley Listening Machine.”

The machine’s arms clattered, and a sheet of paper emerged, its print still wet. On it were typed five words:

“Behold The Otley Listening Machine.”

Applause broke out around the factory. The machine went mad, filling a sheet with gibberish, but Samuel didn’t care – the pride on his father’s face made it all worthwhile.

The men took turns speaking into the jars, beaming as their words emerged as paper and ink. Then, as they prepared to return to work, someone opened the shutters on a high window. Sunlight hit the jars, and the air inside them trembled in familiar patterns. They shook, and the machine sprang into life.

A stream of curses emerged on the paper, an echo of Samuel’s old words, each one neatly typed.

Samuel stared in horror from the text to the face of his stern, Methodist father. All around them men were laughing, but David Payne looked deeply unimpressed.

“I don’t think we’ll be selling a machine like that,” he growled. “Now get back to building those presses – we’ve got orders to fill.”

Nodding sadly, Samuel pulled the lever to switch the device off. As he slouched away from it, a gentle hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see his father smiling at him.

“Don’t let it get to you, lad,” David said. “It were a grand idea. Just a shame the execution were crap.”

* * *


I live in Otley, a small town in Yorkshire. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a short book on the town’s Victorian printing machine manufacturers. Machines + Victorians + the place I live = obvious story inspiration.

If you enjoyed this then you might like also enjoy Riding the Mainspring, my collection of steampunk short stories. You can get a copy for free by signing up to my mailing list, on which you’ll also receive short stories straight to your inbox every Friday.