The history of printing is the history of modern civilisation. Until the introduction of broadcast radio in the 1920s it was the only form of mass communication. It shared ideas and information across Europe and the Americas and has touched most every part of life since the fifteenth century.
The notion of the Western development of printing is advisedly written as the East has a much longer history of the craft. The exclusion of this from many texts on the subject is an illustration of the power of the printed word in propagating social and cultural ideas, and, although outside of the realms of this study, what is and is not printed both equally worth examination.
The gateway invention for printing was paper. The earliest examples of paper can be traced 5,000 years ago to Egypt, Central America and the Pacific Islands. Although suitable for writing and drawing on, the paper would not be recognised nowadays. It was in fact the Chinese that first started making paper, as we know it today, in 105AD.
During the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) dynasties woodblock printing and moveable type were invented, enabling reproduction and dissemination of knowledge and literacy.
A rare complete example of a date-printed book comes from the Tang dynasty and is owned by the British Library. The ‘Diamond Sutra’ was made in AD 868 and is made of seven strips of yellow-stained paper printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over five metres long. It is written in Chinese and is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith, which was founded in India.
Century on century the art of papermaking spread throughout the East; first to Vietnam then Tibet, reaching Korea in the fourth century, and Japan in the sixth. War took papermaking to the Middle East after the capture of several Tang Dynasty papermakers by Islamic warriors. When the Moors invaded Spain and Portugal in the twelfth century papermaking entered Europe. By 1338 the first paper mill opened in France and, following a fifty year gap possibly caused by the bubonic plague ravaging the European population, by 1390 Germany were also mass-producing paper.
In contrast, while paper was just being produced in Europe, foundries producing bronze type were being established in Korea (1392). It took another thirty years for Europe to start printing on to the paper using block-printing methods, which had been in use in China for around 1,000 years.
However, once the production of books began in Europe, as Steinberg (1996) notes, there were a number of people experimenting with print production methods, or reproducing artificial script, as it was known in the fifteenth century.
Johann Gutenberg (Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg) (c. 1400 – c. 1468) is known as the inventor of the printing press. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (no date) gives some further background on Gutenberg: it states that he was the son of a nobleman of Mainz, Germany, but fled to France to avoid conflict in his home city. He was thought to reside there from 1428 until at least 1444 and engage in gem cutting and the teaching of crafts.
During that time he also started work on creating a method of printing with moveable type cast from matrices, and by 1450 began to use it ‘commercially’ (Steinberg, 1996, p. 4). However, the British Library (no date) states that ‘He himself [Gutenberg] did not make money out of it.’ It is possible that a number of loans that resulted in various business partnerships in the venture, suspicions of the secrecy of the development of the press, and inheritance battles, as referred to by both the Encyclopaedia Britannica (no date) and Steinberg (1996), led to this lack of financial reward.
Gutenberg’s first and only large-scale print run was the Bible in Latin. The Gutenberg Bible (1455) is the first complete book still in existence in the West, and the earliest printed from movable type.
The three-volume work was printed in 42-line columns and, in its later stages of production, was worked on by six compositors simultaneously. It is sometimes referred to as the Mazarin Bible (a copy is held in the Cardinal Mazarin library, Paris) or the Forty-two-line Bible.
“Gutenberg’s Bible was a marvel of technology and a beautiful work of art. It was truly a masterpiece. The letters were perfectly formed, not fuzzy or smudged. They were all the same height and stood tall and straight on the page. The 42 lines of text were spaced evenly in two perfect columns. The large versals were bright, colorful and artistic. Some pages had more colorful artwork weaving around the two columns of text.” (Rees, 2006, p.67)
By the 1480s Gutenberg’s press had spread throughout Europe. Printers, who were also ‘his own publisher and retailer’ (Steinberg, 1996, p.17) set off from Mainz, where Gutenberg had returned with his new invention, in search of less competitive marketplaces. Print presses were set up in centres of middle-age international trade, but surprisingly not in university towns. There was limited success in joining with churches and monastic orders as they did not supply steady sales, however they were ideal marketing tools as they had a wide reach, especially beyond traditional boundaries.
Although the business of printing evolved – such as typography, publishing, design – ‘punch-cutting, matrix-fitting, type-casting, composing and printing remained, in principle, for more than three centuries where they were in Gutenberg’s time.’ (Steinberg, 1996, p.6). Then a number of innovations changed the industry: paper making was mechanised in 1798; stereotyping (creating a mould of the page then casting it in metal to remove the need to re-typesetting for each print run) became a commercial prospect in the early 1800s; in 1829 the matrices were improved; wooden elements were replaced by metal and the bed increased, which increased production and decreased time; and manpower was replaced with steam power.
The Times was the first newspaper in history to be printed on a steam-driven machine. ‘The work done by a handpress amounted to about 300 sheets in one hour; Köenig’s machine raised it to 1100, and brought printing into the Industrial Revolution’ (Steinberg, 1996, p.139). In 1828 new innovations raised it again to 4,000, and in 1848 doubled it to 8,000 sheets an hour. By 1851 the newspaper’s circulation reached 40,000.
In 1897 a machine capable of setting type and adjusting the spacing of words was available to buy. Invented in 1885 by Ottmar Mergenthaler in America, the copy was typed into a keyboard that set matrices of letters, which in turn formed the mould of a line. Molten lead alloy was used to set the line of type and the name Linotype evolved from this procedure. Afterwards the Linotype slugs could be melted for re-use. The Monotype machine was invented by Tolbert Lanston at around the same time. It was very similar to the Linotype, but cast letter by letter instead of by line. These machines tripled the speed of composition, from 2,000 letters per hour by hand, to 6,000.
Nowadays 378,947 copies of The Times are sold every day and 20,000 pages can be printed per hour. This is thanks to modern print processes, which saw the demise of the letterpress.
Since the 1950s, offset lithography has become one of the most common printing methods. It depends on photographic processes to transfer information from a computer to a plate or film for printing.
See modern day letterpress printing in action
East to West