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Printing press

The printing press is a mechanical device for printing many copies of a text on rectangular sheets of paper. First invented in China in 1041, the printing press as we know it today was invented in the West by a German goldsmith and eventual printer, Johann Gutenberg in the 1450s. This event has been awarded number 1 of the Top 100 Greatest Events of the Millennium by LIFE Magazine. Apart from Gutenberg, the Dutch Laurens Janszoon Coster has also been credited with this invention.

Development of the printing press

The original method of printing was block printing, pressing sheets of paper into individually carved wooden blocks (xylography). It is believed that block printing originated in China and the earliest known printed text, the Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist scripture), was printed in China in 868 A.D. The technique was also known in Europe, where it was mostly used to print Bibles. Because of the difficulties inherent in carving massive quantities of minute text for every block, and given the levels of peasant illiteracy at the time, texts such as the "Pauper's Bibles" emphasized illustrations and used words sparsely. As a new block had to be carved for each page, printing different books was an incredibly time consuming activity.

Moveable clay and metal type are processes much more than hand copying. The use of movable type in printing was invented in 1041 AD by Bi Sheng in China. Sheng used clay type, which broke easily, but eventually Goryeo (Korea) sponsored the production of metal type (a type foundry with brass was established by the Korean government in 1234 AD). Since there are thousands of Chinese characters (Koreans also used Chinese characters in literature), the benefit of the technique is not as apparent as with alphabetic based languages. Movable type did spur, however, additional scholarly pursuits in Song China and facilitated more creative modes of printing. Nevertheless, movable type was never extensively used in China until the European style printing press was introduced in relatively recent times (thus bringing the technology full circle).

Although probably unaware of the Chinese/Korean printing methods (with substantial evidence for both sides of argument), Gutenberg refined the technique with the first widespread use of movable type, where the characters are separate parts that are inserted to make the text. Gutenberg is also credited with the first use of an oil-based ink, and using "rag" paper introduced into Europe from China by way of Muslims, who had a paper mill in operation in Baghdad as early as 794. Before inventing the printing press in 1440, Gutenberg had worked as a goldsmith. Without a doubt, the skills and knowledge of metals that he learned as a craftsman were crucial to the later invention of the press. The claim that Gutenberg introduced or invented the printing press in Europe is not accepted by all. The other candidate advanced is the Dutchman Laurens Janszoon Coster.

Impact of printing

Diffusion of printing in Europe

Previously, books were copied mainly in monasteries, or (from the 13th century) in commercial scriptoria, where scribes wrote them out by hand. Books were therefore a scarce resource. While it might take someone a year to hand copy a Bible, with the Gutenberg press it was possible to create several hundred copies a year, with two or three people that could read, and a few people to support the effort. Each sheet still had to be fed manually, which limited the reproduction speed, and the type had to be set manually for each page, which limited the number of different pages created per day. Books produced in this period, between the first work of Johann Gutenberg and the year 1500, are collectively referred to as incunabula.

The supplantation of hand copied manuscripts with printed works was not received with unanimous encomium. Not only did the papal court contemplate making printing presses an industry requiring a licence from the Catholic Church (an idea rejected in the end), but as early as in the 15th century some nobles refused to have printed books in their libraries to sully their valuable handcopied manuscripts. Similar resistance was later encountered in much of the Islamic world, where calligraphic traditions were extremely important, and also in the Far East.

Despite some resistance, Gutenberg's printing press spread rapidly across Europe. Within thirty years of its invention in 1453, towns from Hungary to Spain, and from Italy to Britain had functional printing presses. It has been theorized that this incredibly rapid expansion shows not only a higher level of industry (fueled by the high-quality European paper mills that had been opening over the previous century) than expected, but also a significantly higher level of literacy than has often been estimated.

The first printing press in a Muslim territory opened in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) in the 1480s. This printing press was run by a family of Jewish merchants who printed texts with the Hebrew script. After the reconquista in the 1490s, the press was moved from Granada to Istanbul (a popular destination for thousands of Andalusian Jews).

Effects of printing on culture

The discovery and establishment of the printing of books with moveable type marks a paradigm shift in the way information was transferred in Europe. The impact of printing is comparable to the development of language, the invention of the alphabet, and the invention of the computer as far as its effects on the society.

Gutenberg's findings not only allowed a much broader audience to read Martin Luther's German translation of Bible, it also helped spread Luther's other writings, greatly accelerating the pace of Protestant Reformation. They also led to the establishment of a community of scientists (previously scientists were mostly isolated) that could easily communicate their discoveries, bringing on the scientific revolution. Also, although early texts were printed in Latin, books were soon produced in common European vernacular, leading to the decline of the Latin language.

In Korea and China, there were no texts similar to the Bible which could guarantee a printer return on the high capital investment of a printing press, and so the primary form of printing was wood block printing which was more suited for short runs of texts for which the return was uncertain.

Some credit the printing press with giving Europe the technological and communication edge over Eastern countries in the end, one of the major questions in world history.

Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, "One Author, one work (title), one piece of information" (Giesecke, 1989; 325). Before, the author was less important, since a copy of Aristotle made in Paris might not be identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author was entirely lost.

Because the printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing from oral readings to silent, private reading. This gradually raised the literacy level as well, revolutionizing education.

It can also be argued that printing changed the way Europeans thought. With the older illuminated manuscripts, the emphasis was on the images and the beauty of the page. Early printed works emphasized principally the text and the line of argument. In the sciences, the introduction of the printing press marked a move from the medieval language of metaphors to the adoption of the scientific method.

In general, knowledge came closer to the hands of the people, since printed books could be sold for a fraction of the cost of illuminated manuscripts. There were also more copies of each book available, so that more people could discuss them. Within 50-60 years, the entire library of "classical" knowledge had been printed on the new presses (Eisenstein, 1969; 52). The spread of works also led to the creation of copies by other parties than the original author, leading to the formulation of copyright laws. Furthermore, as the books spread into the hands of the people, Latin was gradually replaced by the national languages. This development was one of the keys to the creation of modern nations.

Some theorists, such as McLuhan, Eisenstein, Kittler, and Giesecke, see an "alphabetic monopoly" as having developed from printing, removing the role of the image from society. Other authors stress that printed works themselves are a visual medium.

The art of book printing and typeface

For years, book printing was considered a true art form. Typesetting, or the placement of the characters on the page, including the use of ligatures, was passed down from master to apprentice. In Germany, the art of typesetting was termed the "black art", and it has largely been lost, due to advances in computer typesetting programs, which make it possible to get similar results with less human involvement. Some few practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. There is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

Printing in the industrial age

The Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying, as testament to its effectiveness, it was essentially unchanged from the time of its invention until the Industrial Revolution, some three hundred years later.

The invention of the steam powered press is credited to Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer in 1812 made it possible to print tens of thousands of copies of a page in a day.

Koenig and Bauer sold two of their first models to The Times in London in 1814, capable of 1,100 impressions per hour. The first edition so printed was on November 28, 1814. Koenig and Bauer went on to perfect the early model so that it could print on both sides of a sheet at once. This began to make newspapers available to a mass audience, and from the 1820s changed the nature of book production, forcing a greater standardization in titles and other metadata.

Diagram of a single-side printing press c.1820

Koenig and Bauer's press was improved by Applegath and Cooper. The diagram indicates the principle operation of a Cowper and Applegath's Single Machine. The press is built up from a large flat inking table (A) which moves regularly back and forth, the form (B) on the table holds the type. The paper travels clockwise round a large cloth covered cylinder, the impression roller (C), and is pressed against the table. The ductor roller (D) rotates and so draws ink from the attached reservoir. The ink passes from the ductor roller to the vibrating roller (E), this moves, on its arms, in a regular motion between the ductor roller and the table. The ink is spread thinly and evenly by the distributing rollers (F) and then, as the table moves, passes onto the inking rollers (G). The axles of the inking rollers rest in groves, allowing them to rise and fall, they are also position at a slight angle to the table to improve ink distribution. As the table continues to move the form passes alternately under the inking rollers, twice, and then under the impression roller.

Later on in the middle of the 19th century the rotary press (invented in 1843 in the United States by Richard M. Hoe) allowed millions of copies of a page in a single day. Mass production of printed works flourished after the transition to rolled paper, as continuous feed allowed the presses to run at a much faster pace.

Movable type has been credited as the single most important invention of the millennium.

Industrial printing press
Industrial printing press

Later inventions in this field include:


Fontaine, Jean-Paul. L'aventure du livre: Du manuscrit medieval a nos jours. Paris: Bibliotheque de l'image, 1999.

See also



Who were the Greatest Thinkers?


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