The invention of printing press

After the invention of writing in Mesopotamia, for around four thousand years, all written documents were produced by hand, one by one. When people needed a copy of a scroll, they had to pay someone to copy it out for them by hand. This was the reason why accessing to scrolls were very expensive and only the richest people could have scrolls until printing technology was invented.

Printing Press

Around 650 AD, a faster method was invented in Tang Dynasty China. The idea was to carve wooden blocks with a page of text, ink it and the pressing paper on the block for printing the page. The whole page was carved together allowing to reproduce the same page over and over again. This was a great step forward in order to produce much cheaper scrolls. Around 300 years later, an alchemist Pi Sheng invented a more flexible system of movable type, carving each Chinese character separately on small fired clay blocks and arranging them to make words, so that the same blocks could be re-used to make different texts.

Korean Moveable Typeset
An example of movable typeset from 15th century – Uploadmo, Korean movable typeset form 1447, CC BY-SA 3.0

As we mentioned earlier, the paper and the knowledge of how to make one arrived in Europe around 1200 AD. With the new enthusiasm about books and printing, the printers in Europe started to experiment with the processes more often. Probably with the knowledge that traveled across the Silk Road, they recognized that the alphabet is a great fit for moveable type than the logograms of Chinese. Considering the increased wealth acquired by especially northern Europe, many more people knew how to read and this would create a market for the printed books.

Inspiration for Printing Press
Early modern wine press. Such screw presses were applied in Europe to a wide range of uses and provided Gutenberg with the model for his printing press. Gun Powder Ma, Holzspindelkelter von 1702, CC BY-SA 3.0
Printing press from 1811
Printing press from 1811 – Deutsches Museum Munich, Germany, Handtiegelpresse von 1811, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1400s AD, after several years of focused experiments, an inventor from Germany, Johannes Gutenberg made the system scalable and led the way for a mass produced printing industry with his Printing Press. He used moveable metal type made from a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony to print a Christian Bible.

Gutenberg Bible from Printing Press
A paper codex of the acclaimed 42-line Bible, Gutenberg’s major work – NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, New York Public Library, 2009. Pic 01, CC BY-SA 2.0

These developments led to an explosion of much cheaper printed books in Europe. The impact was enormous. In about 50 years, around 20 million books were printed. This played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the spread of learning to the masses. In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.

Illustrations and Printing Press

The first book to have woodcut illustrations was Ulrich Boner’s Der Edelstein, printed by Albrecht Pfister in Bamberg in 1461. As the decades passed, typographic printers dramatically increased their use of woodblock illustrations. This created a booming demand for blocks and the stature of graphic illustrations increased.

A page from Ulrich Boner’s Der Edelstein, printed by Albrecht Pfister
A page from Ulrich Boner’s Der Edelstein, printed by Albrecht Pfister

Around 1530, Claude Garamond opened the first type foundry, developing and selling fonts to printers. Garamond is credited by the sheer quality of his fonts with a major role in eliminating Gothic styles in most of the Europe.

Garamond's original punches for the Grecs du roi type, which remain owned by the French government.
Garamond’s original punches for the Grecs du Roi type, which remains owned by the French government. – ActuaLitte, Grecs du Roi punches 1, CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1814, Frederich Koenig combined a hand press and steam engine to create Steam-Powered Rotary Press. Koenig’s new press increased the hourly input two times and with further prototypes reached to around 1500 sheets per hour. Building on this idea, other innovators soon improved Koenigs machine and within 15 years steam powered presses were printing 4000 sheets per hour.

Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing press
Koenig’s 1814 steam-powered printing press


Around 1860’s, Ottmar Mergenthaler, who has been called a second Gutenberg, invented the linotype machine, the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. This machine revolutionized the art of printing. Now the preparation phase before the actual printing could be done much faster and efficiently. 

Linotype Simplex 1895
One of the early Linotype Machines – Dr. Bernd Gross, Linotype Simplex 1895, CC BY-SA 4.0


The developments in printing technologies did not stop and the search for producing printed materials in larger amounts while reducing the overall costs led to the invention of other technologies such as Offset Printing that is still used, XerographyInkjet printingLaser printing and finally 3D printing


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