History of the Printing Press

Because of the sheer scope of myriad technological advances over the past century, many historical advances in technology have been taken for granted. The invention and evolution of the printing press could certainly be considered one of those oft-forgotten technological advancements. In order to gauge the importance of the printing press over the past millennium, all one has to do is ponder this simple question: “How many books would exist in the world today if not for the innovation of the printing press and it’s subsequent iterations?”

printing press history

Early History of Printing Press
While there were certainly earlier printing processes of importance in history, the first known “movable” type printing press was invented sometime in the middle of the 11th century. This particular innovation gave birth to mass printing as the world knows it today. The movable type printing press was the brainchild of one Chinese printer named Bi Sheng. He conceptualized his invention sometime between 1041-1048. While his invention probably originated from wood block printing processes that had been developed centuries before his time, it was he who decided that wooden pieces could be replaced with clay (porcelain) parts to prevent the components from absorbing too much ink. When he added the movable type components, printers had the flexibility to change materials quickly.

By the early to mid-1200s, other parts of the Far East began to embrace this new printing technology. In Korea, printers started replacing clay or porcelain parts with metal parts, making machines lighter and the process cleaner and more efficient. By the turn of the century, the majority of Chinese printers had not fully adopted the movable type feature and were still using a process called “wood-block” printing. Even with the wood-block printing process still dominant in China, European printers were starting to recognize the enormous capacity of the movable type printing process being used in Korea and some parts of China. They were interested in the processes’ ability to produce masses of material, which was critical in an environment where the desire for book knowledge was growing exponentially. It was finally in the late 14th century to early 15th century that the Europeans embraced all of these innovations and started implementing a few of their own in an effort to continue improving quality. One important inventor and contributor during this time was Johannes Gutenberg.

The Gutenberg Era
When looking at how modern printing presses function today, you can clearly see that many of the features evolved from the Gutenberg Press. Gutenberg was a former goldsmith who began working on his printing press around 1436. During that time, he combined forces with a gem-cutter named Andreas Dritzehn and paper mill owner Andreas Heilmann. The knowledge that each brought to the table would lead to the use of certain combinations of metal settings, paper and ink that would enable printers to create high quality books in a way that they had previously been incapable of before. Gutenberg’s primary contributions to modern press printing include a “die casting” process that allowed for quick conversion of letters and symbols from one block to the next during the actual printing process. He also devised a process to quickly distribute the weight of the press evenly across the paper stock in order to prevent blurred print from dragging. Finally, it was Gutenberg who recognized that oil-based inks were needed in order to create quality print.

The Book Revolution
By the early part of the 16th century, book print shops were popping up all over Europe. This revolution was spearheaded by the re-invention of the mechanical movable printing press, which had been modified enough to allow for the use of better printing materials. It is estimated that as many as 20,000,000 books were printed during the century. By the end of the 17th century, those estimates sat at somewhere between 150,000,000-200,000,000 books. It was this ability to print books quickly that lead to authors becoming celebrities and acquiring great wealth from the sale of their works. As an interesting side note, the Chinese were still using manual movable printing processes during this time frame. Many attribute this lack of progress to the fact that literacy was not valued at that time in the Chinese culture and the need for mass production of books was very limited.

The Industrial Revolution
Over the next 250-300 years, the mechanical movable type printing press underwent a variety of innovations, however small, that would collectively improve its functionality and efficiency. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that major innovations began raising the bar for printers worldwide; this coincided with the beginning of the industrial revolution. During this time, many industries – especially the consumer manufacturing industry – were undergoing major operational changes. Most of these changes were brought on by the invention of the steam engine. In the printing industry, another innovation – rotary motion cylinders – also moved to the forefront around the same time.

It was a German printer named Friedrich Koenig who embraced both of these new innovations between the years of 1802-1818. He combined both features into what would become the forerunner of the steam powered rotary printing press that was invented in 1843 by Richard M. Hoe, an American mechanical engineer. With this new invention, two-sided newspapers could be printed at a volume of millions of pages per day.

This period also gave rise to a new concept in printing: the use of these large machines to do small jobs became burdensome because of the setup work involved; this led to the development of “jobbing presses,” which were smaller machines that were designed to efficiently handle small printing jobs like stationery and advertisements.

Modern Day Printing Presses
Over the past 170 years, further innovations have continued to make printing presses more efficient. Steam was eventually replaced by electricity. New processes such as lithography (originally presented in 1796) were invented, which allowed print type to be clearer with more vibrant colors. Modern day lithography involves the transferring of photographic material onto metal plates through a “burning” process. Once the “positive” image is left on the plate, the plate is inserted into the press, and inked and printed material is produced at the rate of thousands of copies per minute.

As modern day printing technology has continued to evolve, some new printing processes have become popular for printers who are working on smaller jobs. These new processes include inkjet printing, dot-matrix printing, laser printing, thermal printing and 3D printing. If there’s one thing to be learned, it’s this: with over a thousand years of innovation in the books, we can only expect more innovation in the future.

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