History Of Print

A not-so brief history of printing

The importance of the printed word both in our daily lives and indeed world history is often overlooked or simply underestimated, for without the humble printing press Illiteracy would be rife, many would still be speaking Latin, news of historic events would never have reached us, and the greatest scientific discoveries would have arrived centuries late.

Having now established the importance of the printed word, let us now dive into the history of the printing press and how techniques have progressed over the 15 centuries from its conception.

Woodblock Printing

We’re in 6th-century China during the Tang dynasty. One of many inventions to emerge from this great empire was a system of printing using wooden matrices that were engraved, inked and pressed onto a sheet of paper. The scope of this invention was such that, in modern Chinese historiography, printing is considered one of the four great inventions of Ancient China.

One of the first books printed with woodblocks was a copy of the Diamond Sutra (868 AD), a six-sheet scroll over five metres long. Our large format team would have a field day with that one!

Movable-Type Printing

We’ve arrived at one of the most important stages in the history of printing: the advent of movable type. And once again, this invention came from China. In 1041, the printer Bi Sheng invented movable clay type, a truly revolutionary step forward albeit a tentative one as they were very fragile and prone to breakages due to its makeup. In 1298, the inventor Wang Zhen began using much stronger wooden type and invented a complex system of revolving tables that improved the quality of printing.

Now fast forward to the 15th century and the introduction of movable type in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg. The centrepiece of his technique was the punch and a steel parallelepiped (a solid block of which each face is a parallelogram) of which each face was engraved with a character, a number, letter or punctuation mark. The punch created the matrix in which type was cast, then placed on a tray, inked and pressed onto paper.

So, what were Gutenberg’s three major innovations?

  • He was the first to use oil-based inks, which lasted longer than the water-based inks used previously.
  • His type was more robust because it was made from an alloy of lead and tin.
  • He invented the first printing press, which was inspired by the grape press.

On 23 February 1455, after about a year of experimentation, the first Gutenberg Bible was published with a print run of 180 copies.

The Rotary Press

Jumping forward again and the year now is 1843. We’re in the United States and Richard March Hoe has just invented the first rotary press – perfected in 1846 and patented in 1847. Initially, this system was hand-fed with single sheets until, in 1863, William Bullock introduced a press that was fed by a paper roll with the text and images to be printed being curved around rotating cylinders. There was no longer a flat surface that exerted pressure to print: instead, the paper passed through a cylinder which exerted a far greater force. Thanks to the mechanisation of the process and the introduction of continuous paper rolls, rotary printing presses could print up to 8,000 sheets an hour. Which makes it the first press suitable for large print runs.

In 1846, the rotary press started being used to print the ‘Philadelphia Public Ledger’ which was one of the first daily newspapers available in the United States.

Offset Printing

We are now back in blitey in the year 1875, where Robert Barclay is putting the finishing touches to his newly invented ‘offset press’ specifically designed for printing on metal. It was only later in 1904 where the technology was adapted for paper (by accident) by Ira Washington Rubel who forgot to load a sheet of paper during a production run. The press instead printed the target image onto the rubber mat which was used to move the paper through the press which much to his surprise created a much more accurate image than printing onto metal.

In essence Offset printing is a printing technique in which the inked image or text is moved from a plate to a rubber blanket and from there to the paper or another printing surface. Today, the offset printing press is still used to print high volumes of images or texts. It remains an effective method for printing numerous copies quickly, efficiently and in high quality.

What are the advantages of offset printing?

  • It generates very sharp, clean images.
  • High-quality printing on any type of paper, even if it has a surface that isn’t perfectly smooth.

The disadvantages? 

  • Offset presses are bulky and require lots of maintenance.
  • Not particularly cost-effective for large print runs.
  • One off proofs are not available due to highly involved and time consuming setup


In 1885, German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler developed the linotype, a typesetting machine that automatically composed lines of type. It worked in much the same way as a typewriter with the operator composing lines of text by pressing keys on a keyboard. Each key would release a matrix for the corresponding character and this matrix would align with the others. The line of matrices was then filled with molten lead, cast, inked and used to press the characters onto sheets of paper.

Although it is a seemingly elaborate process, linotype significantly sped up printing indefinitely meaning that typesetters no longer had to compose lines of print by hand – one character at a time.

In 1886, the linotype machine was used for the first time to print the ‘New York Tribune’, a daily newspaper founded in 1841. Whilst in Italy, it was first used in 1897 to print the ‘Tribuna’, which was one of Rome’s leading dailies.

The world renowned American inventor Thomas Edison referred to the linotype machine as “the eighth wonder of the world”, which underlines the importance of this machine in the history of printing.

Laser Printer

In 1971, the Xerox Corporation developed laser technology. In a laser printer, the content to be printed is generated by electronic processes and printed directly onto the sheet of paper. To be more precise, the laser transfers the image to a photosensitive cylinder (called a ‘drum’) and from there, using toner, it’s directly applied to the paper and then passed through a heated element in order to set it to the paper. Not only did the prints come out of the printer dry (opposed to the wet ink used in offset printing), more importantly and from this point on, anyone could print whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, in their office or from the comfort of their own home as long as they could afford one that is.

Bulky, complicated and very expensive, the first laser printers were very different from those we’re used to today and we had to wait until 1982 for the first desktop laser printer to be released by Canon and it wasn’t wasn’t until the until the late eighties that laser printers became widely accessible to the public, along with inkjet, dot matrix and dye-sublimation printers. Thank goodness that since then advancing technologies have allowed printers to become ever cheaper, more compact and efficient.

3D Printing

We’ve reached the present day and although it’s not a service offered by us, we thought it only right that we end our journey through time with the 3D printer. This printing technology was actually developed some years ago, in 1983 to be exact, when Chuck Hull used UV rays to harden varnishes. The engineer baptised his invention ‘stereolithography’ – a method that allows solid objects (produced in 3D modelling software) to be created by adding overlapping layers of a photosensitive liquid polymer which has been struck by UV light.

Today, there are various technologies for 3D printing. They mainly differ in the way that they assemble different layers: they can use materials that are melted by heat, liquid materials that are hardened or materials that are laminated and bound together. The technology has advanced to a point that it is widely utilised in many different fields from model making and prototyping to healthcare with more and more uses being found each and every day.

It has taken years for 3D printing to become widely used. Why? Because the cost of this technology was initially extremely high. But now 3D printing is used in many fields – from architecture to archaeology, from art to healthcare – with more being added all the time.

What will be the next big step in printing? We’ll have to wait and see.

Want to find out more?

We understand that a lot of printing terms are hard to understand so feel free to give us a call today on 01242 518191 to speak to one of our experts. Alternatively you can email us at [email protected].

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