Essay On History Of Printing

The history of printing goes back to the duplication of images by means of stamps in very early times. The use of round seals for rolling an impression into clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3000 BCE, they feature complex and beautiful images. In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In China, India and Europe, printing on cloth certainly preceded printing on paper or papyrus. The process is essentially the same: in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until the 17th century. The development of printing has made it possible for books, newspapers, magazines, and other reading materials to be produced in great numbers, and it plays an important role in promoting literacy.


Main article: Stencil

Hand stencils, made by blowing pigment over a hand held against a wall, have been found in Asia and Europe dating from over 35,000 years ago, and later prehistoric dates in other continents.[1][2] After that stencilling has been used as a historic painting technique on all kinds of materials. Stencils may have been used to colour cloth for a very long time; the technique probably reached its peak of sophistication in Katazome and other techniques used on silks for clothes during the Edo period in Japan. In Europe, from about 1450 they were commonly used to colour old master prints printed in black and white, usually woodcuts.[3] This was especially the case with playing-cards, which continued to be coloured by stencil long after most other subjects for prints were left in black and white.[4] Stencils were used for mass publications, as the type did not have to be hand-written.


In China seals were used since at least the Shang dynasty. In the Western Zhou, sets of seal stamps were encased in blocks of type and used on clay moulds for casting bronzes. By the end of the 3rd century BC seals were also used for printing on pottery. In the Northern dynasties textual sources contain references to wooden seals with up to 120 characters.

The seals had a religious element to them. Daoists used seals as healing devices by impressing therapeutic characters onto the flesh of sick people. They were also used to stamp food, creating a talismanic character to ward off disease. The first evidence of these practices appeared under a Buddhist context in the mid 5th century. Centuries later seals were used to create hundreds of Buddha images.

Stone and bronze blocks[edit]

Stone and bronze blocks have been used to print fabric. Archaeological evidence of them have been unearthed at Mawangdui and in the tomb of the King of Nanyue, while block printed fabrics have been discovered at Mashan zhuanchang in Jiangling, Hubei.

In the 4th century the practice of creating paper rubbings of stone carvings such as calligraphic models and texts took hold. Among the earliest evidence of this is a stone inscription cut in mirror image from the early 6th century.

Woodblock printing (200 AD)[edit]

Main article: Woodblock printing

Woodblock printing (diaoban yinshua 雕版印刷), known as xylography today, was the first method of printing applied to a paper medium. It became widely used throughout East Asia both as a method for printing on textiles and later, under the influence of Buddhism, on paper. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to about 220. Ukiyo-e is the best known type of Japanese woodblock art print. Most European uses of the technique on paper are covered by the term woodcut (see below), except for the block-books produced mainly in the fifteenth century.[7]

Legendary origins[edit]

According to southern Chinese histories, during the 480s, a man named Gong Xuanxuan styled himself Gong the Sage and 'said that a supernatural being had given him a "jade seal jade block writing," which did not require a brush: one blew on the paper and characters formed.' He then used his powers to mystify a local governor. Eventually he was dealt with by the governor's successor, who presumably executed Gong. Timothy Hugh Barrett postulates that Gong's magical jade block was actually a printing device, and Gong was one of the first, if not the first printer. The semi-mythical record of him therefore describes his usage of the printing process to deliberately bewilder onlookers and create an image of mysticism around himself.

In the Sinosphere[edit]

Main article: History of printing in East Asia

The rise of printing was greatly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana beliefs, religious texts hold intrinsic value for carrying the Buddha's word and act as talismanic objects containing sacred power capable of warding off evil spirits. By copying and preserving these texts, Buddhists could accrue personal merit. As a consequence the idea of printing and its advantages in replicating texts quickly became apparent to Buddhists, who by the 7th century, were using woodblocks to create apotropaic documents. These Buddhist texts were printed specifically as ritual items and were not widely circulated or meant for public consumption. Instead they were buried in consecrated ground. The earliest extant example of this type of printed matter is a fragment of a dhāraṇī (Buddhist spell) miniature scroll written in Sanskrit unearthed in a tomb in Xi'an. It is called the Great spell of unsullied pure light (Wugou jingguang da tuoluoni jing 無垢淨光大陀羅尼經) and was printed using woodblock during the Tang dynasty, c. 650-670. A similar piece, the Saddharma pundarika sutra, was also discovered and dated to 690 to 699.[11] This coincides with the reign of Wu Zetian, under which the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, which advocates the practice of printing apotropaic and merit making texts and images, was translated by Chinese monks.

Evidence of woodblock printing appeared in Korea and Japan soon afterward. The Great Dharani Sutra (Korean: 무구정광대다라니경, translit. Muggujeonggwang Daedharanigyeong Hanja: 無垢淨光大陀羅尼經) was discovered at Bulguksa, South Korea in 1966 and dated between 704 and 751 in the era of Later Silla. The document is printed on a 8 cm × 630 cm (3.1 in × 248.0 in) mulberry paper scroll.[12][13] A dhāraṇī sutra was printed in Japan around AD 770. One million copies of the sutra, along with other prayers, were ordered to be produced by Empress Shōtoku. As each copy was then stored in a tiny wooden pagoda, the copies are together known as the Hyakumantō Darani (百万塔陀羅尼, "1,000,000 towers/pagodas Darani").

The oldest extant evidence of woodblock prints created for the purpose of reading are portions of the Lotus Sutra discovered at Turpan in 1906. They have been dated to the reign of Wu Zetian using character form recognition.

The oldest text containing a specific date of printing was discovered in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in 1907 by Aurel Stein. This copy of the Diamond Sutra is 14 feet long and contains a colophon at the inner end, which reads: Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11 May, AD 868 ]. It is considered the world's oldest securely-dated woodblock scroll.

The Diamond sutra was closely followed by the earliest extant printed almanac, the Qianfu sinian lishu (乾符四年曆書), dated to 877.

From 932 to 955 the Twelve Classics and an assortment of other texts were printed. During the Song dynasty, the Directorate of education and other agencies used these block prints to disseminate their standardized versions of the Classics. Other disseminated works include the Histories, philosophical works, encyclopedias, collections, and books on medicine and the art of war.

In 971 work began on the complete Tripiṭaka Buddhist Canon (Kaibao zangshu 開寶藏書) in Chengdu. It took 10 years to finish the 130,000 blocks needed to print the text. The finished product, the Sichuan edition of the Kaibao canon, also known as the Kaibao Tripitaka, was printed in 983.

In 989 Seongjong of Goryeo sent the monk Yeoga to request from the Song a copy of the complete Buddhist canon. The request was granted in 991 when Seongjong's official Han Eongong visited the Song court.[14] In 1011, Hyeonjong of Goryeo issued the carving of their own set of the Buddhist canon, which would come to be known as the Goryeo Daejanggyeong. The project was suspended in 1031 after Heyongjong's death, but work resumed again in 1046 after Munjong's accession to the throne. The completed work, amounting to some 6,000 volumes, was finished in 1087. Unfortunately the original set of woodblocks was destroyed in a conflagration during the Mongol invasion of 1232. King Gojong ordered another set to be created and work began in 1237, this time only taking 12 years to complete. In 1248 the complete Goryeo Daejanggyeong numbered 81,258 printing blocks, 52,330,152 characters, 1496 titles, and 6568 volumes. Due to the stringent editing process that went into the Goryeo Daejanggyeong and its surprisingly enduring nature, having survived completely intact over 760 years, it is considered the most accurate of Buddhist canons written in Classical Chinese as well as a standard edition for East Asian Buddhist scholarship.[15]

Impact of woodblock printing[edit]

Prior to the introduction of printing, the size of private collections in China had already seen an increase since the invention of paper. Fan Ping (215-84) had in his collection 7,000 rolls (juan), or a few hundred titles. Two centuries later, Zhang Mian owned 10,000 juan, Shen Yue (441-513) 20,000 juan, and Xiao Tong and his cousin Xiao Mai both had collections of 30,000 juan. Emperor Yuan of Liang (508-555) was said to have had a collection of 80,000 juan. The combined total of all known private book collectors prior to the Song dynasty number around 200, with the Tang alone accounting for 60 of them.

Following the maturation of woodblock printing, official, commercial, and private publishing businesses emerged while the size and number of collections grew exponentially. The Song dynasty alone accounts for some 700 known private collections, more than triple the number of all the preceding centuries combined. Private libraries of 10-20,000 juan became commonplace while six individuals owned collections of over 30,000 juan. The earliest extant private Song library catalogue lists 1,937 titles in 24,501 juan. Zhou Mi's collection numbered 42,000 juan, Chen Zhensun's collection lists 3,096 titles in 51,180 juan, and Ye Mengde (1077-1148) as well as one other individual owned libraries of 6,000 titles in 100,000 juan. The majority of which were secular in nature. Texts contained material such as medicinal instruction or came in the form of a leishu (類書), a type of encyclopedic reference book used to help examination candidates.

Imperial establishments such as the Three Institutes: Zhaowen Institute, History Institute, and Jixian Institute also followed suit. At the start of the dynasty the Three Institutes' holdings numbered 13,000 juan, by the year 1023 39,142 juan, by 1068 47,588 juan, and by 1127 73,877 juan. The Three Institutes were one of several imperial libraries, with eight other major palace libraries, not including imperial academies. According to Weng Tongwen, by the 11th century, central government offices were saving tenfold by substituting earlier manuscripts with printed versions. The impact of woodblock printing on Song society is illustrated in the following exchange between Emperor Zhenzong and Xing Bing in the year 1005:

The emperor went to the Directorate of Education to inspect the Publications Office. He asked Xing Bing how many woodblocks were kept there. Bing replied, "At the start of our dynasty, there were fewer than four thousand. Today, there are more than one hundred thousand. The classics and histories, together with standard commentaries, are all fully represented. When I was young and devoted myself to learning, there were only one or two scholars in every hundred who possessed copies of all the classics and commentaries. There was no way to copy so many works. Today, printed editions of these works are abundant, and officials and commoners alike have them in their homes. Scholars are fortunate indeed to have been born in such an era as ours!

In 1076, the 39 year old Su Shi remarked upon the unforeseen effect an abundance of books had on examination candidates:

I can recall meeting older scholars, long ago, who said that when they were young they had a hard time getting their hands on a copy of Shiji or Han shu. If they were lucky enough to get one, they thought nothing of copying the entire text out by hand, so they could recite it day and night. In recent years merchants engrave and print all manner of books belonging to the hundred schools, and produce ten thousand pages a day. With books so readily available, you would think that students' writing and scholarship would be many times better than what they were in earlier generations. Yet, to the contrary, young men and examination candidates leave their books tied shut and never look at them, preferring to amuse themselves with baseless chatter. Why is this?

Woodblock printing also changed the shape and structure of books. Scrolls were gradually replaced by concertina binding (經摺裝) from the Tang period onward. The advantage was that it was now possible to flip to a reference without unfolding the entire document. The next development known as whirlwind binding (xuanfeng zhuang 旋風裝) was to secure the first and last leaves to a single large sheet, so that the book could be opened like an accordion.

Around the year 1000, butterfly binding was developed. Woodblock prints allowed two mirror images to be easily replicated on a single sheet. Thus two pages were printed on a sheet, which was then folded inwards. The sheets were then pasted together at the fold to make a codex with alternate openings of printed and blank pairs of pages. In the 14th century the folding was reversed outwards to give continuous printed pages, each backed by a blank hidden page. Later the sewn bindings were preferred rather than pasted bindings.[22] Only relatively small volumes (juan 卷) were bound up, and several of these would be enclosed in a cover called a tao, with wooden boards at front and back, and loops and pegs to close up the book when not in use. For example, one complete Tripitaka had over 6,400 juan in 595 tao.[23]

Despite the productive effect of woodblock printing, historian Endymion Wilkinson notes that it never supplanted handwritten manuscripts. Indeed, manuscripts remained dominant until the very end of Imperial China:

As a result of block-printing technology, it became easier and cheaper to produce multiple copies of books quickly. By the eleventh century, the price of books had fallen by about one tenth what they had been before and as a result they were more widely disseminated. Nevertheless, even in the fifteenth century most books in major libraries were still in manuscript, not in print. Almost to the end of the empire it remained cheaper to pay a copyist than to buy a printed book. Seven hundred and fifty years after the first imperially sponsored printed works in the Northern Song, the greatest book project of the eighteenth century, the Siku quanshu 四庫全書, was produced as a manuscript, not as a printed collection. About 4 percent of it was printed in movable type in 1773, but it was hand-carved movable wooden type. Indeed, the entire collection was only printed for the first time in the 1980s. Access to books, especially large works, such as the Histories, remained difficult right into the twentieth century.

— Endymion Wilkinson

Not only did manuscripts remain competitive with imprints, they were even preferred by elite scholars and collectors. Ironically the age of printing gave the act of copying by hand a new dimension of cultural reverence. Those who considered themselves real scholars and true connoisseurs of the book did not consider imprints to be real books. Under the elitist attitudes of the time, "printed books were for those who did not truly care about books."

However it should be noted that copyists and manuscript only continued to remain competitive with printed editions by dramatically reducing their price. According to the Ming dynasty author Hu Yinglin, "if no printed edition were available on the market, the hand-copied manuscript of a book would cost ten times as much as the printed work," also "once a printed edition appeared, the transcribed copy could no longer be sold and would be discarded." The result is that despite the mutual co-existence of hand-copied manuscripts and printed texts, the cost of the book had declined by about 90 percent by the end of the 16th century.

In India[edit]

Nine inscribed copper plates thought to belong to the mature Harappan phase (2600 - 1900 BCE), are thought to be used for printing.[27]

In Buddhism, great merit is thought to accrue from copying and preserving texts. The 4th-century[which?] master[who?] listed the copying of scripture as the first of ten essential religious practices. The importance of perpetuating texts is set out with special force in the longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, which urges the devout not only to hear, learn, remember and study the text but to obtain a good copy and to preserve it. This "cult of the book" led to techniques for reproducing texts in great numbers, especially the short prayers or charms known as dhāraṇīs. Stamps were carved for printing these prayers on clay tablets from at least the 7th century, the date of the oldest surviving examples.[28]

In Europe[edit]

See also: History of Western typography

Printing with a press was practiced in Christian Europe as a method for printing on cloth, where it was common by 1300. Images printed on cloth for religious purposes could be quite large and elaborate, and when paper became relatively easily available, around 1400, the medium transferred very quickly to small woodcut religious images and playing cards printed on paper. These prints were produced in very large numbers from about 1425 onwards.[29][page needed]

Around the mid-century, block-books, woodcut books with both text and images, usually carved in the same block, emerged as a cheaper alternative to manuscripts and books printed with movable type. These were all short heavily illustrated works, the bestsellers of the day, repeated in many different block-book versions: the Ars moriendi and the Biblia pauperum were the most common. There is still some controversy among scholars as to whether their introduction preceded or, the majority view, followed the introduction of movable type, with the range of estimated dates being between about 1440–1460.[30]

Movable type (1041)[edit]

Main article: Movable type

See also: History of typography in East Asia

Movable type is the system of printing and typography using movable pieces of metal type, made by casting from matrices struck by letterpunches.

Ceramic movable-type[edit]

Movable-type was invented in the Northern Song dynasty around the year 1041 by the commoner Bi Sheng. Bi Sheng's movable-type was fired in porcelain. After his death, the ceramic movable-type passed onto his descendants. The next mention of movable-type occurred in 1193 when a Southern Song chief counselor, Zhou Bida (周必大), attributed the movable-type method of printing to Shen Kuo. However Shen Kuo did not invent the movable-type but credited it to Bi Sheng in his Dream Pool Essays. The ceramic movable-type was also mentioned by Kublai Khan's councilor Yao Shu, who convinced his pupil Yang Gu to print language primers using this method.

Wooden movable type[edit]

Bi Sheng also developed wooden movable type, but it was abandoned in favor of ceramic types due to the presence of wood grains and the unevenness of the wooden type after being soaked in ink.[32][33] However wooden movable type had evidently reached the TangutWestern Xia to the west by the 12th century. There, the Tanguts printed the Auspicious Tantra of All-Reaching Union, a 449-page text considered to be the earliest extant example of a text printed using the wooden movable type.[34]

Wang Zhen, who lived in the Yuan dynasty, also described the wooden movable type in his Book of Agriculture (Nongshu 農書) of 1313.

Now, however, there is another method [beyond earthenware type] that is both more exact and more convenient. A compositor's form is made of wood, strips of bamboo are used to mark the lines and a block is engraved with characters. The block is then cut into squares with a small fine saw till each character forms a separate piece. These separate characters are finished off with a knife on all four sides, and compared and tested till they are exactly the same height and size. Then the types are placed in the columns [of the form] and bamboo strips which have been prepared are pressed in between them. After the types have all been set in the form, the spaces are filled in with wooden plugs, so that the type is perfectly firm and will not move. When the type is absolutely firm, the ink is smeared on and printing begins.[35]

— Wang Zhen

Wang Zhen used two rotating circular tables as trays for laying out his type. The first table was separated into 24 trays in which each movable type was categorized based on a number corresponding with a rhyming pattern. The second table contained miscellaneous characters.

Using more than 30,000 wooden movable types, Wang Zhen printed a hundred copies of his county gazetteer, Records of Jingde County (Jingde xianzhi 旌德縣志), a text containing more than 60,000 characters.

Wooden movable type printing became relatively common during the Ming dynasty and became widespread during the Qing era.

Metal movable type[edit]

Metal movable type appeared in the late Song and Yuan. Bronze movable types were used to print banknotes and official documents by both the Song and Jin.[36]

In the Jin dynasty, copper-block prints were slotted with two square holes for embedding bronze movable type characters, each selected from 1000 different characters, such that each printed paper money had a different combination of markers. A copper block printed paper banknote dated between 1215–1216 in the collection of Luo Zhenyu's Pictorial Paper Money of the Four Dynasties, 1914, shows two special characters: one called Ziliao, the other called Zihao, for the purpose of preventing counterfeit; over the Ziliao there is a small character (輶) printed with movable copper type, while over the Zihao there is an empty square hole, apparently the associated copper metal type was lost. Another sample of Song dynasty money of the same period in the collection of Shanghai Museum has two empty square holes above Ziliao as well as Zihou, due to the loss of two copper movable types.[37]

The most widespread use of metal movable type occurred in Korea, where its methods were understood sometime before 1232 under the Goryeo Dynasty.[38] However, all 50 original copies seem to have been lost. The oldest extant book printed with movable metal type is the Jikji of 1377.[39] This form of metal movable type was described by the French scholar Henri-Jean Martin as "extremely similar to Gutenberg's".[40]

Tin movable type is mentioned in Wang Zhen's Zao Huozi Yinshufa (造活字印書法) of 1298, but it was considered unsatisfactory due to incompatibility with the inking process.[41]

Impact of movable type in the Sinosphere[edit]

Movable type printing was hardly used for the first 300 years after its invention by Bi Sheng. Even in Korea where metal movable type was most widespread, it still never replaced woodblock printing. Indeed, even the promulgation of Hangeul was done through woodblock prints. The general assumption is that movable type did not replace block printing in places that used Chinese characters due to the expense of producing more than 200,000 individual pieces of type. Even woodblock printing was not as cost productive as simply paying a copyist to write out a book by hand. Although Sejong the Great introduced Hangeul, an alphabetic system, in the 15th century, Hangeul only replaced Hanja in the 20th century. And unlike China, the movable type system was kept mainly within the confines of a highly stratified elite Korean society:

Korean printing with movable metallic type developed mainly within the royal foundry of the Yi dynasty. Royalty kept a monopoly of this new technique and by royal mandate suppressed all non-official printing activities and any budding attempts at commercialization of printing. Thus, printing in early Korea served only the small, noble groups of the highly stratified society.[42]

— Sohn Pow-Key

Only during the Ming and Qing dynasties did wooden and metal movable types see any considerable use, but the preferred method remained woodblock. Usage of movable type in China never exceeded 10 percent of all printed materials while 90 percent of printed books used the older woodblock technology. In one case an entire set of wooden type numbering 250,000 pieces was used for firewood. Woodblocks remained the dominant printing method in China until the introduction of lithography in the late 19th century.

In Japan the use of printing beyond its Buddhist origins was insignificant for centuries after its introduction. Printing of secular materials did not pick up until the late 16th century. The Setsuyō-shū, a two-volume Chinese-Japanese dictionary printed in 1591, was the first secular book to be printed in Japan. Only after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea, which brought back artisans and printing equipment in 1593, did Japan acquire its own wooden type font. Under Emperor Go-Yōzei's orders, the ConfucianAnalects were printed using metal movable type in 1598. It is generally considered to be the earliest extant Japanese text printed using metal movable type. The popularity of movable type in Japan was short lived. By the 1640s woodblock printing had reasserted itself as the dominant mode of printing in Japan.[43]


Traditionally it has been assumed that the prevalence of woodblock printing in East Asia as a result of Chinese characters led to the stagnation of printing culture and enterprise in that region. S. H. Steinberg describes woodblock printing in his Five Hundred Years of Printing as having "outlived their usefulness" and their printed material as "cheap tracts for the half-literate, ... which anyway had to be very brief because of the laborious process of cutting the letters." John Man's The Gutenberg Revolution makes a similar case: "wood-blocks were even more demanding than manuscript pages to make, and they wore out and broke, and then you had to carve another one - a whole page at a time."

Recent commentaries on printing in China using contemporary European observers with first hand knowledge complicate the traditional narrative. T. H. Barrett points out that only Europeans who had never seen Chinese woodblock printing in action tended to dismiss it, perhaps due to the almost instantaneous arrival of both xylography and movable type in Europe. The early Jesuit missionaries of late 16th century China, for instance, had a similar distaste for wood based printing for very different reasons. These Jesuits found that "the cheapness and omnipresence of printing in China made the prevailing wood-based technology extremely disturbing, even dangerous." Two hundred years later the Englishman John Barrow, by way of the Macartney mission to Qing China, also remarked with some amazement that the printing industry was "as free as in England, and the profession of printing open to everyone." The commercial success and profitability of woodblock printing was attested to by one British observer at the end of the nineteenth century, who noted that even before the arrival of western printing methods, the price of books and printed materials in China had already reached an astoundingly low price compared to what could be found in his home country. Of this, he said:

We have an extensive penny literature at home, but the English cottager cannot buy anything like the amount of printed matter for his penny that the Chinaman can for even less. A penny Prayer-book, admittedly sold at a loss, cannot compete in mass of matter with many of the books to be bought for a few cash in China. When it is considered, too, that a block has been laboriously cut for each leaf, the cheapness of the result is only accounted for by the wideness of sale.

Other modern scholars such as Endymion Wilkinson hold a more conservative and skeptical view. While Wilkinson does not deny "China's dominance in book production from the fourth to the fifteenth century," he also insists that arguments for the Chinese advantage "should not be extended either forwards or backwards in time."

European book production began to catch up with China after the introduction of the mechanical printing press in the mid fifteenth century. Reliable figures of the number of imprints of each edition are as hard to find in Europe as they are in China, but one result of the spread of printing in Europe was that public and private libraries were able to build up their collections and for the first time in over a thousand years they began to match and then overtake the largest libraries in China.

— Endymion Wilkinson

European movable type (1453)[edit]

See also: Incunabula

East[cast?] metal movable type may have spread to Europe between the late 14th and early 15th centuries.[49][50][51][52][53]

It is traditionally surmised that Johannes Gutenberg, of the German city of Mainz, developed European movable type printing technology with the printing press around 1439[54] and in just over a decade, the European age of printing began. However, the evidence shows a more complex evolutionary process, spread over multiple locations.[55] Also, Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer experimented with Gutenberg in Mainz.

Compared to woodblock printing, movable type page-setting was quicker and more durable. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type, and printing presses rapidly spread across Europe, leading up to the Renaissance, and later all around the world. Today, practically all movable type printing ultimately derives from Gutenberg's movable type printing, which is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.[56]

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than previously used water-based inks. Having worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of his knowledge of metals. He also the first to make his type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, known as type metal, printer's lead, or printer's metal, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books, and proved to be more suitable for printing than the clay, wooden or bronze types used in East Asia. To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what some considered his most ingenious invention: a special matrix which enabled the moulding of new movable types with an unprecedented precision at short notice. Within a year of printing the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg also published the first coloured prints.

The invention of the printing press revolutionized communication and book production, leading to the spread of knowledge. Printing was rapidly spread from Germany by emigrating German printers, but also by foreign apprentices returning home. A printing press was built in Venice in 1469, and by 1500 the city had 417 printers. In 1470 Johann Heynlin set up a printing press in Paris. In 1473 Kasper Straube published the Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474 in Kraków. Dirk Martens set up a printing press in Aalst (Flanders) in 1473. He printed a book about the two lovers of Enea Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II. In 1476 a printing press was set up in England by William Caxton. The Italian Juan Pablos set up an imported press in Mexico City in 1539. The first printing press in Southeast Asia was set up in the Philippines by the Spanish in 1593. The Rev. Jose Glover intended to bring the first printing press to England's American colonies in 1638, but died on the voyage, so his widow, Elizabeth Harris Glover, established the printing house, which was run by Stephen Day and became The Cambridge Press.[57]

The Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying. It remained largely unchanged in the eras of John Baskerville and Giambattista Bodoni, over 300 years later.[58] By 1800, Lord Stanhope had constructed a press completely from cast iron, reducing the force required by 90% while doubling the size of the printed area.[58] While Stanhope's "mechanical theory" had improved the efficiency of the press, it was only capable of 250 sheets per hour.[58] German printer Friedrich Koenig was the first to design a non-manpowered machine—using steam.[58] He moved to London in 1804, and met Thomas Bensley; he secured financial support for his project in 1807.[58] With a patent in 1810, Koenig designed a steam press "much like a hand press connected to a steam engine."[58] The first production trial of this model occurred in April 1811.

Flat-bed printing press[edit]

Main articles: Printing press and Spread of the printing press

A printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The systems involved were first assembled in Germany by the goldsmithJohannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century.[54] Printing methods based on Gutenberg's printing press spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world, replacing most block printing and making it the sole progenitor of modern movable type printing. As a method of creating reproductions for mass consumption, The printing press has been superseded by the advent of offset printing.

Johannes Gutenberg's work in the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehen—a man he had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill.[54] It was not until a 1439 lawsuit against Gutenberg that official record exists; witnesses testimony discussed type, an inventory of metals (including lead) and his type mold.[54]

Others in Europe were developing movable type at this time, including goldsmith Procopius Waldfoghel of France and Laurens Janszoon Coster of the Netherlands.[54] They are not known to have contributed specific advances to the printing press.[54] While the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition had attributed the invention of the printing press to Coster, the company now states that is incorrect.[59]

Printing houses in Europe[edit]

Early printing houses (near the time of Gutenberg) were run by "master printers." These printers owned shops, selected and edited manuscripts, determined the sizes of print runs, sold the works they produced, raised capital and organized distribution. Some master printing houses, like that of Aldus Manutius, became the cultural center for literati such as Erasmus.

  • Print shop apprentices: Apprentices, usually between the ages of 15 and 20, worked for master printers. Apprentices were not required to be literate, and literacy rates at the time were very low, in comparison to today. Apprentices prepared ink, dampened sheets of paper, and assisted at the press. An apprentice who wished to learn to become a compositor had to learn Latin and spend time under the supervision of a journeyman.
  • Journeyman printers: After completing their apprenticeships, journeyman printers were free to move employers. This facilitated the spread of printing to areas that were less print-centred.
  • Compositors: Those who set the type for printing.
  • Pressmen: the person who worked the press. This was physically labour-intensive.

The earliest-known image of a European, Gutenberg-style print shop is the Dance of Death by Matthias Huss, at Lyon, 1499. This image depicts a compositor standing at a compositor's case being grabbed by a skeleton. The case is raised to facilitate his work. At the right of the printing house a bookshop is shown.

Financial aspects[edit]

Piece of a Western Xia wooden printing block for a Buddhist text written in Tangut script. Discovered in 1990 in the Hongfo Pagoda at Helan County, Ningxia.
Mongolian Buddhist printing block.
Korean wood printing block from the 19th century, on display at the British Museum in London.
Song dynasty (960-1279) bronze plate advertising print for the Liu family needle shop at Jinan. Earliest extant print advertisement.
Ceramic movable type print from the Western Xia. Found in Wuwei.
A revolving typecase for wooden type in China, from Wang Zhen's book published in 1313
Jikji, Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters, the earliest known book printed with movable metal type, 1377. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
Type used to print the earliest extant book using movable type - the Jikji (1377).
Models of Bi Sheng's revolving typecase tables.
European output of books printed by movable type from ca. 1450 to 1800[48]
Printing press from 1811, photographed in Munich, Germany.
In this woodblock from 1568, the printer at left is removing a pagel from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks

Most of us tend to take printed materials for granted, but imagine life today if the printing press had never been invented. We would not have books, magazines or newspapers. Posters, flyers, pamphlets and mailers would not exist. The printing press allows us to share large amounts of information quickly and in huge numbers.

In fact, the printing press is so significant that it has come to be known as one of the most important inventions of our time. It drastically changed the way society evolved. In this article, we will explore how the printing press was invented, as well as how it affected culture.

Table of Contents

Life before the printing press

Before the printing press was invented, any writings and drawings had to be completed painstakingly by hand. Several different materials were used to transcribe books: clay and papyrus, wax, and parchment. It wasn’t just anyone who was allowed to do this; such work was usually reserved for scribes who lived and worked in monasteries.


The monasteries had a special room called a "scriptorium." There, the scribe would work in silence, first measuring and outlining the page layouts and then carefully copying the text from another book. Later, the illuminator would take over to add designs and embellishments to the pages.

In the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, books were usually only owned by monasteries, educational institutions or extremely rich people. Most books were religious in nature. In some cases, a family might be lucky enough to own a book, in which case it would be a copy of the Bible.

Inspiration and invention of the printing press

Around the late 1430s, a German man named Johann Gutenberg was quite desperate to find a way to make money. At the time, there was a trend in attaching small mirrors to one’s hat or clothes in order to soak up healing powers when visiting holy places or icons. The mirrors themselves were not significant, but Gutenberg quietly noted how lucrative it was to create mass amounts of a cheap product.

During the 1300s to 1400s, people had developed a very basic form of printing. It involved letters or images cut on blocks of wood. The block would be dipped in ink and then stamped onto paper.

Gutenberg already had previous experience working at a mint, and he realized that if he could use cut blocks within a machine, he could make the printing process a lot faster. Even better, he would be able to reproduce texts in great numbers.

Gutenburg printing press, movable type

Instead of using wood blocks, Gutenberg used metal instead. This became known as a "movable type machine," since the metal block letters could be moved around to create new words and sentences.

With this machine, Gutenberg made the very first printed book, which was naturally a reproduction of the Bible. Today the Gutenberg Bible is an incredibly valuable, treasured item for its historical legacy.

How the printing press works

With the original printing press, a frame is used to set groups of type blocks. Together, these blocks make words and sentences; however, they are all in reverse. The blocks are all inked and then a sheet of paper is laid on the blocks. All of this passes through a roller to ensure that the ink is transferred to the paper. Finally, the paper is lifted, and the reader can see the inked letters that now appear normally as a result of the reversed blocks.

These printing presses were operated by hand. Later, towards the 19th century, other inventors created steam-powered printing presses that did not require a hand operator. In comparison, today’s printing presses are electronic and automated, and can print much faster than ever before!

Today, there are multiple types of printing presses, each best for a specific type of printing. They include:


Similar in concept to Gutenberg’s press, letterpresses require an operator to set movable type, ink it, and press paper against it. The entire process is done by hand. The letterpress is often used by small, boutique printers, and offers a beautiful handmade look. However, it’s also inefficient and expensive compared to other printing presses.

Offset press:

The offset press revolutionized the printing industry, making it possible to print enormous quantities efficiently and cost-effectively. In a nutshell, modern offset printing involves using a computer to create a plate, which is then placed on a cylinder. Ink is applied to the plate cylinder, which rolls against a rubber cylinder, which in turn rolls the ink onto sheets of paper fed through the press. Offset presses are used to mass produce newspapers, magazines, books, and other printed materials.

Digital press:

One of the few drawbacks to offset printing is that it’s not economical in low volumes, primarily because plates can cost several hundred dollars to produce. That’s insignificant when printing hundreds or thousands of the same item, but it can be costly when printing a few dozen or even a single copy. Digital presses make low-volume printing affordable, and have similarly revolutionized the printing industry, because they do not require plates. Instead, they use advanced inkjet or laser jet technology to transfer ink to paper.

Types of pressess

Though these are the most popular types of printing presses, other types exist for specialized purposes. For example, engravers are often used to create the raised logos often seen on letterhead.

Impact of the printing press

Gutenberg’s invention made a dramatic impact when it reached the public. At first, the noble classes looked down on it. To them, hand-inked books were a sign of luxury and grandeur, and it was no match for the cheaper, mass-produced books.

Thus, press-printed materials were at first more popular with the lower classes. When word spread about the printing press, other print shops opened and soon it developed into an entirely new trade. Printed texts became a new way to spread information to vast audiences quickly and cheaply. Academics benefited from this dissemination of scholarly ideas and even politicians found that they could garner the public’s interest through printed pamphlets.

An important side effect was that people could read and increase their knowledge more easily now, whereas in the past it was common for people to be quite uneducated. This increased the discussion and development of new ideas.

Another significant effect was that the printing press was largely responsible for Latin’s decline as other regional languages became the norm in locally printed materials. The printing press also helped standardize language, grammar, and spelling.

The printing press played a major role in shaping the Renaissance, which has interesting correlations to today’s Information Age.

Modern print technology has made printing more affordable and accessible than ever, whether you’re printing thousands of booklets or a single short run poster. The industry has even embraced the Digital Age, which has given rise to online printing companies that make it easy for anyone to design, print, and mail printed materials without leaving their computers.

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