Ask many people Who invented printing? and the chances are they will tell you, Johann Gutenberg. Gutenberg was a German printer in the 1400s who is considered the father of modern printing. But in reality what he did was take a number of different processes and inventions, put them together and improve them. The elements Gutenberg was able to put together were letters/symbols (characters), paper, ink and tools (technology). Let us look at each of these separately.

Letters/symbol (characters)
You have to have something to print! The first system of written symbols to represent words was developed by the ancient Phoenicians, round about 1500 BC. Like most inventions, over time this system was developed and changed and improved upon by the Greeks, Romans and Anglo-Saxons, until it evolved into the modern Western alphabet.

Tools (Technology)
Printing depended on making raised surfaces to form letters/symbols, inking them and then taking an impression on a sheet of paper. The Chinese were already doing this as early as the 2nd century AD, carving whole text blocks into stone. By the 6th century, carved wooden blocks replaced the stone. But they still printed whole blocks of text at one time, and could not be taken apart when finished with and made up into something else. What was needed was movable type, which could be assembled to print one particular job, then taken apart and used again for something else. By 1041, the Chinese were using movable type made from earthenware/ pottery material. In the 14th century, type cast from bronze (which lasted longer) was being used by the Koreans.

Of course, you need something to print on! The Chinese are generally credited with the invention of paper. Ts ai Lun, in about 105 AD, found a way of taking fibres from tree bark, old rags and hemp waste, floating them in water, then allowing them to settle before lifting them off and drying them into a sheet of paper. Papermaking spread from there to Japan, the Middle East, and finally to Europe sometime in the 12th century.

Once again, the Chinese are credited with inventing the special inks needed for printing. As early as 400 AD, the Chinese were using inks for printing wood blocks. Inks suitable for printing were available to Johann Gutenberg. These were usually made by combining a linseed oil varnish and black carbon.

Putting it all together
Gutenberg began using type made of wood, which he fastened together with wires through the base of each piece. But wood was too soft, and was damaged too easily, so he made pieces of type from lead. Once again, he found pure lead to be too soft, so he mixed it with tin and antimony, which was just right. Finally, he made moulds of brass so he could cast large quantities of type at one time; this proved to be the key to modern printing. He also made improvements to the inks, so that they spread better over the type and transferred more easily to the paper.

The final invention by Gutenberg, and some say the greatest, was the invention of the printing press. No one can really tell what the first printing press was like, but it was probably adapted from a wine or cheese press. It would have had a heavy base or bed of wood or stone and, above that, another flat surface (called a platen), which could be moved up and down by a heavy wooden screw. The type was clamped on the bed, and then inked with two wool-stuffed leather balls. A sheet of damp paper was placed over the type, and then a blanket spread over the paper. (The blanket helped soften the pressure of the platen.) A lever was pulled, which turned the screw and forced the platen down, pushing the paper onto the inked type. The lever was released and the printed sheet of paper removed to dry. While this may sound slow today, a printer could make 300 to 500 copies a day - an astounding speed for the time. Gutenberg used his movable type and printing press to start his most famous project - the Gutenberg Bible.


A small sample of the thousands of typefaces
available to a printer


Using a hand printing press. The lever forces the platen down on to the paper and inked type.


The Gutenberg Bible

For some 400 years, although printing spread throughout Europe and England, it was basically still the same process as developed by Gutenberg. Then, a sweeping series of changes occurred. New methods of making paper, plates and typesetting all combined to make printing more cost-effective and make books more available to everyone.

In 1810, the cylinder press was developed in England by Friedrich Konig. It used a heavy roller to apply pressure to type on a flat bed. This increased the speed of printing to about 1 100 impressions (pages) an hour - four times faster than any other method. He also designed a two-cylinder press, which printed both sides of a sheet.

It was an American, Richard Hoe, in 1846, who developed the rotary press. This did away with the flat bed. Instead, the type was locked onto a large cylinder. Other, smaller cylinders fed the paper through and pressed it against the large cylinder as it turned. From here, exact copies of pages were made up, then a paper-maché mould was taken. Molten lead was poured into the mould to make a complete printing plate. This was taken further in 1865, when a rotary press was developed which printed both sides at the same time, and printed onto a continuous roll of paper (called a web) instead of sheets. (The sheets were later cut or trimmed into sheets.) This increased the speed dramatically.

Perhaps the last great advance before computerised printing was the development of offset printing. In this process, the inked image is transferred (or offset) to a rubber blanket on a cylinder. Again, this increased printing speed, and quickly took over from the earlier method (called letterpress).

Computers now dominate printing. Lead type is gone, replaced by digital computer images. Many of the old typing trades skills, such as hand composing, are also virtually gone. Pages are written, designed and assembled on computer screens, then made into printing plates and printed at thousands of impression an hour.

Gutenberg would be amazed!