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Printing press from 1811, photographed in Munich, Germany.

A printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The mechanical systems involved were first assembled in Germanymarker by the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, based on existing screw-presses used to press cloth, grapes, etc. and possibly print. Gutenberg was the first in Western Europe to develop a printing press.

During the Renaissance era, printing methods based on Gutenberg's printing press spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world. It eventually replaced most versions of block printing, making it the most used format of modern movable type, until being superseded by the advent of offset printing.


The overall invention of Gutenberg's printing method depended for some of its elements upon a diffusion of technologies from China , primarily the Chinese inventions and innovations of paper, in addition to a growing demand by the general European public for the lower cost paper books, instead of the exorbitantly expensive parchment books. By 1424, Cambridge Universitymarker library owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard. The demand for these books was driven by rising literacy amongst the middle class and students in Western Europe. At this time, the Renaissance was still in its early stages and the populace was gradually removing the monopoly the clergy had held on literacy.

While woodblock printing had arrived in Europe at approximately the same time paper did, this method was not as suitable for literary communication as it was in the east. Block printing is well-suited to the ancient written Chinese because character alignment is not critical, but the existence of over 100,000 ancient characters and hieroglyphic symbols made the ancient Chinese movable type technology somewhat inefficient and economically impractical affecting the profits of the ancient Chinese book publishers. With the Latin alphabet, however, the need for precise alignment and a much simpler character set positioned movable type as a great advance for the west.

The use of a press was a key technological difference provided European book publishers increased profits over their ancient Chinese counterparts—the screw-based presses used in wine and olive oil production. Attaining mechanical sophistication in approximately the year 1000, devices for applying pressure on a flat-plane were common in Europe.

Gutenberg's press

Johannes Gutenberg's work on the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehn—a man he had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill. However, it was not until a 1439 lawsuit against Gutenberg that an official record exists; witnesses' testimony discussed Gutenberg's types, an inventory of metals (including lead), and his type molds.

Others in Europe were also developing movable type at this time, including goldsmith Procopius Waldfoghel of France and Laurens Janszoon Coster of the Netherlandsmarker. However, they are not known to have contributed specific advances to the printing press./

Having previously worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman. He was the first to make type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books and proved to be more suitable for printing than the clay, wooden or bronze types invented in East Asia. To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what is considered one of his most ingenious inventions, a special matrix enabling the quick and precise moulding of new type blocks from a uniform template.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than the previously used water-based inks. As printing material he used both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced in Europe a few centuries earlier from Chinamarker by way of the Arabs.

In the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg made a trial of coloured printing for a few of the page headings, present only in some copies. A later work, the Mainz Psalter of 1453, presumably designed by Gutenberg but published under the imprint of his successors Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, had elaborate red and blue printed initials.

Historical impact

Printing as developed in East Asia did not make use of a printing press as in Gutenberg's case. Although the invention of movable type in Chinamarker and Koreamarker preceded Gutenberg's printing press, the impact of East Asian movable type printing presses was not as influential as it was in Western European society. This was likely due to the enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of porcelain tablets, or in the case of Koreamarker, metal tablets, required by the use of written Chinese characters. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of books, on subjects ranging from Confucian Classics to science and mathematics, were printed using the older technology of woodblock printing, creating the world's first print culture..

In contrast, the impact of Gutenberg's printing press in Europe was comparable to the development of writing, the invention of the alphabet or the Internet, as far as its effects on society. Just as writing did not replace speaking, printing did not achieve a position of total dominance. Handwritten manuscripts continued to be produced, and the different graphic modes of communication continued to influence each other.

The printing press was also a factor in the establishment of a community of scientists who could easily communicate their discoveries through the establishment of widely disseminated scholarly journals, helping to bring on the scientific revolution. Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. 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 would not be exactly 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, though they previously had not been unknown. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing over several centuries from oral readings to silent, private reading. The wider availability of printed materials also led to a drastic rise in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe.

The printing press was an important step towards the democratization of knowledge. Within fifty or sixty years of the invention of the printing press, the entire classical canon had been reprinted and widely promulgated throughout Europe (Eisenstein, 1969; 52). Now that more people had access to knowledge both new and old, more people could discuss these works. Furthermore, now that book production was a more commercial enterprise, the first copyright laws were passed to protect what we now would call intellectual property rights. A second outgrowth of this popularization of knowledge was the decline of Latin as the language of most published works, to be replaced by the vernacular language of each area, increasing the variety of published works. Paradoxically, the printed word also helped to unify and standardize the spelling and syntax of these vernaculars, in effect 'decreasing' their variability. This rise in importance of national languages as opposed to pan-European Latin is cited as one of the causes of the rise of nationalism in Europe.

The art of book printing

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," in allusion to the ink-covered printers. The Black Art Press & Print in Baltimore, MD adopted their name for this reason. It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it easy to get similar results more quickly and with less physical labor. Some practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainzmarker, Germany.

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. Certainly, modern developments in printing have revitalized the role of illustrations.

The Industrial Revolution

Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing press
The Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying and still was largely unchanged in the eras of John Baskerville and Giambattista Bodoni—over 300 years later. By 1800, Lord Stanhope had constructed a press completely from cast iron, reducing the force required by 90% while doubling the size of the printed area. While Stanhope's "mechanical theory" had improved the efficiency of the press, it still was only capable of 250 sheets per hour. German printer Friedrich Koenig would be the first to design a non-manpowered machine—using steam. Having moved to London in 1804, Koenig soon met Thomas Bensley and secured financial support for his project in 1807. Patented in 1810, Koenig had designed a steam press "much like a hand press connected to a steam engine." The first production trial of this model occurred in April 1811. He produced his machine with assistance from German engineer Andreas Friedrich Bauer.

Koenig and Bauer sold two of their first models to The Times in Londonmarker in 1814, capable of 1,100 impressions per hour. The first edition so printed was on November 28, 1814. They went on to perfect the early model so that it could print on both sides of a sheet at once. This began the long process of making newspapers available to a mass audience (which in turn helped spread literacy), and from the 1820s changed the nature of book production, forcing a greater standardization in titles and other metadata. Their company Koenig & Bauer AG is still one of the world's largest manufacturers of printing presses today.

The Miehle P.P.
& Mfg.
The steam powered rotary printing press, invented in 1843 in the United Statesmarker 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.

Also, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a separate development of jobbing presses, small presses capable of printing small-format pieces such as billheads, letterheads, business cards, and envelopes. Jobbing presses were capable of quick set-up (average setup time for a small job was under 15 minutes) and quick production (even on treadle-powered jobbing presses it was considered normal to get 1,000 impressions per hour [iph] with one pressman, with speeds of 1,500 iph often attained on simple envelope work). Job printing emerged as a reasonably cost-effective duplicating solution for commerce at this time.

A late 1930's Platen printing press model
By the late 1930s or early 1940s, printing presses had increased substantially in efficiency: a model by Platen Printing Press was capable of performing 2,500 to 3,000 impressions per hour.

Later inventions in this field include the following:

See also



  • Fontaine, Jean-Paul. L'aventure du livre: Du manuscrit medieval a nos jours. Paris: Bibliotheque de l'image, 1999.
  • Hind, Arthur M.; An Introduction to a History of Woodcut, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1935 (in USA), reprinted Dover Publications, 1963 ISBN 0-486-20952-0

Further reading

On the effects of Gutenberg's printing
  • Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge University Press, September 1980, Paperback, 832 pages, ISBN 0-521-29955-1
  • More recent, abridged version: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2Rev ed, 12 September 2005, Paperback, ISBN 0-521-60774-4
  • Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) Univ. of Toronto Press (1st ed.); reissued by Routledge & Kegan Paul ISBN 0-7100-1818-5.

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