The printing press is one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of humankind. Its invention is described, in addition to the changes the press underwent throughout its history. The impact on the history of humankind is also analyzed.
The Origins of Printing
Although German silversmith Johann Gutenberg is usually credited with the invention of the printing press, the origins of printing are really in China. The first prints were manufactured in China c. 594 from a negative relief; this method involved “rubbing off impressions from a wood block spread along the caravan routes to the West” (Mercer, n.d.). The Chinese also invented paper that provided smooth surface convenient for printing.
From the Far East, printed products were imported in Europe by travelers that brought to the continent so-called “block books,” or pieces of wood with letters or imaged carved on to them (Kreis, 2004). However, this technique was flawed in many ways since it produced results that were not lasting or durable. The blocks did not withstand frequent printing, and by the time of Gutenberg’s invention, many European craftsmen began to experiment with new movable type design of printing that formed the basis for the new printing press.
Johann Gutenberg’s Invention
Although printing did exist before Gutenberg, as stated above, it was a costly and inefficient undertaking. The German master can be credited with the invention of the principally new type of press that enabled mass production of books and other printed materials. The type of press created by Johann Gutenberg with relatively minor changes existed well into the 19th century.
Johann Gutenberg was one of those who realized that wooden blocks were expensive and deficient in many ways, so he decided to give metal types a try. His first experiments with the new type of printing began when he first moved from Mainz to Strassburg in 1430 (IdeaFinder, 2006). The machine made by Gutenberg represented an adaptation of the screw printing press used for pressing wine in villages throughout the Rhine Valley. Gutenberg made his machine work on oil-based ink that had recently been invented. Also, he “devised a mold of metal prism matrices, punch-stamped typeface molds and invented a functional metal alloy to mold the type” (Mercer, n.d.). The press was based on the movable type.
The German craftsman began the work on the printing press in 1436 and completed in 1440 (IdeaFinder, 2006). Some of the inventor’s first famous printed materials included “Poem of the Last Judgment” printed in 1446 and the “Calendar for 1448″ published in the respective year (IdeaFinder, 2006). These prints already demonstrate the improvement of the machine as compared to the first examples of printed production – the indulgences Gutenberg manufactured in 1440 on his first press. These papers used by the Roman Catholic Church for sale to Christians in exchange for sin purgation were the first things to be produced with the new machine.
In Gutenberg’s time’s religious publications took precedence before lay literature, and there is evidence that he began to print the Bible approximately in 1450 in partnership with Johann Fust (IdeaFinder, 2006). His Bible started to roll out on a large scale in Europe in 1452, being the first Bible produced in this way. It is interesting that Gutenberg, despite his revolutionary contribution to technology, was not financially successful, partly because his partner in the business, Johann Fust, through litigation deprived him of his printing press and confiscated his produce (IdeaFinder, 2006).
The Impact of the Printing Press
Following 500 years after the invention of the printing press, the respondents polled by the British Sunday Times said Gutenberg was “the most significant figure of the past 1,000 years” (“Gutenberg’s Millennium”, 2000, 41). This opinion echoes the saying of Francis Bacon who believed “printing was one of three inventions (the others were gunpowder and the compass) that had “changed the appearance and state of the whole world” (“Gutenberg’s Millennium”, 2000, 41). These opinions demonstrate how the grateful humankind continues to recognize the outstanding achievement of Johann Gutenberg and the decisive impact it had on culture and scholarship in the entire world.
The invention of the printing press made the process of printing easy and efficient, which, in turn, created possibilities for the proliferation of knowledge through press and book publishing. Before Gutenberg, books were exclusive rarity rather than a common commodity. Their use was more frequent in the houses of the rich than the middle class, and ownership of a large library was certainly out of reach for the poor. The current periodicals would never have been born without the printing press that made daily publication of news materials possible.
With its invention, printing “stimulated the literacy of lay people and eventually came to have a deep and lasting impact on their private lives” (Kreis, 2004). In addition to publications on religious matters, there appeared books on moralizing subjects, fiction, medical manuals, and even travel guides. Books were now owned and read by merchants, students, and ordinary people. In a sense, the invention of printing was another catalyst for the Renaissance, contributing to the acquisition of knowledge by lay people, as opposed to the situation before the advent of the printing press when books and learning were accumulated in churches and monasteries.
Improvements to Gutenberg’s Press
Gutenberg’s invention adequately served humanity for many centuries after its invention, demonstrating few alterations. The typical features of the printing press produced by the German master remained in place, including “punch cutting, matrix fitting, typecasting, composing and printing” (Mercer, n.d.). However, efforts were made to make it even more cost-efficient and productive.
Fifteen years after the first application of oil paints for image printing, in 1460, the printer’s ink was invented that could “stick onto a metal surface, and it was based on heat-bodied linseed oil, kept for a year to allow the mucilage to settle” (Mercer, n.d.). Scholars believe today that the black paint used in this type of printing was produced out of soot processed specially. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was still not uncommon for printers to produce their ink on their own.
In the 16th century, advertisers first turned to printing as a vehicle for conveying their messages. Handbills ousted the so-called town criers that walked around shouting their messages aloud (Mercer, n.d.).
Initially, the development of the printing industry was stifled by many economic problems that plagued the burgeoning industry. There were no reliable channels for book distribution, and transportations and sales were poorly organized. The demand was limited because the literacy rate among wide masses of the population remained deplorably low. The problem of distribution was partly solved with the emergence of local fairs that sold books, in particular, the Frankfort Book Faire based in the German regional center of Frankfort (Jones, 2000).
In the 17th century, Gutenberg’s press was upgraded with the addition of springs that helped the platen to rise quickly, enabling it “to print a maximum of 250 impressions an hour” (Mercer, n.d.). The 17th century also saw the appearance of newspapers that rose in conjunction with the proliferation of advertising that funded their existence. Over the course of the century, modern advertising was born, as producers shifted from merely informing about their product to persuading customers to buy it.
The invention of lithography marked the end of the 18th century by Austrian printer Alois Senefelder. The new method enabled printers to reproduce images from “the flat, smooth, surface of fine-grained limestone” (Mercer, n.d.). This method yielded high-quality images for books and other publications.
The 19th- 20th century
The past two centuries were characterized by dramatic developments in the printing industry that radically transformed the original press invented by Johann Gutenberg. In 1804-05 Englishman Earl of Stanhope introduced the iron-framed lever press to replace the wooden screw construction invented by Gutenberg, following the invention of new metal casting techniques. He is also credited with the invention of stereotyping that allowed producers to store type pages to make new copies later.
Overall, the 19th century witnesses a host of important advances in the printing industry, such as Frederich Koenig’s steam printing machine with rollers (1814), William Church’s letter founding machine (1822), and March Hoe’s revolving perfecting press with capacity exceeding 20 000 impressions an hour (1840) (Mercer, n.d.). In 1846, the first ever rotary press was introduced by Hoe who devised a “way to fit the type around the cylinder which was inked by automated rollers while four smaller rollers brought the sheets of paper in contact with it”, allowing the machine to produce 24 000 images an hour.
Frenchman Firmin Gillot in 1859 invented photo-lithography that included a new technique for etching metal plates. Although originally a black-and-white technique, it was perfected by the end of the century to allow the production of more subtle overtones, which led to the appearance of a new journalistic occupation. Zincography, or variation of photo-lithography that allowed magnification and downsizing of photos existed till photo-composition replaced it in the 1970s.
In 1863, the feeding mechanism of the printing pressed was improved by William Bullock, allowing continuous feeding instead of the previously used procedure of loading separate sheets into the press. Bullock also “incorporated Bennett’s metal plate system and the use of stereotypes, shaped to fit the rollers, instead of handset type, came into general use” (Mercer, n.d.).
A radical breakthrough occurred in 1885 with the invention of the Linotype, and Monotype presses that automatically distributed type and adjusted spaces and justification. The American Ottmar Mergenthaler introduced the linotype. It had “had a keyboard which set not type but matrices of letters which formed the mold of a line” (Mercer, n.d.). The special lead alloy adjusted the type lines. The appearance of linotypes largely made compositors’ jobs redundant as types could now be set automatically and with greater precision.
In the 20th century, the printing industry continued to increase output as people more and more relied on printed information. The replacement of steam energy with electric power was partially responsible for increases in output. It also accounted for the installation of new features such as automatic stereotyping devices and advanced folding mechanisms.
Current Trends in Printing
The printing industry today is a major sector of the economy in many developed nations. In 1987, commercial printing industry in the US employed 318,900 people (Scott, 1987, p.vii). The printing industry in the US demonstrated revenue growth even in the face of the post-9/11 crisis, a fact that demonstrates its robustness an important place in the modern economy (Pesco, 2005, p. 7).
It is not surprising that a large part of growth (99%) of growth came from enterprises that offered digital printing (Pesco, 2005, p. 7). The future shift from traditional to digital printing seems to be only a matter of time, as more and more businesses shift to this mode of production. On the rise are digital color printing and print-on-demand. The color market is expected to gain impetus from the increased introduction of InfoTrends/CAPV, “a multifunctional device that cost-effectively copies and prints in monochrome and color with only a marginal premium over comparable black-&-white devices” (Pesco, 2005, p. 16). Printing businesses integrate computer technologies in their production at a growing rate, including various innovations like production applications and workflow automation (Pesco, 2005, p. 18).
Printing continues to be an essential branch of the economy, underpinning the development of education and science. Although dramatically transformed by technological progress, Gutenberg’s invention leaves on. Its impact on the evolution of culture and scholarship can hardly be overrated, as printing created a favorable environment for the development of human thought.
Gutenberg’s Millennium. (2000, December). Reading Today 18, No.3, 41.
Jones, B. (1997, January 30). Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from http://communication.ucsd.edu/bjones/Books/printech.html
IdeaFinder. (2006). Fascinating facts about the invention of the Printing Press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/story039.htm
Kreis, S. (2004, May 13). The Printing Press. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html
Mercer, P. (n.d.). The History of Printing. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from http://ink.news.com.au/mercury/print_museum/print_history.htm
Pesco, C.A. (2005). The Transformation of the Printing Industry. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from http://www.capv.com/eprise/main/home/Downloads/CAPKeynote2005.pdf
Scott, D.T. (1987). Technology and Union Survival: A Study of the Printing Industry. New York: Praeger Publishers.
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