In the broadest sense, printing is any means by which a pattern, text, or image is impressed on another surface. The creation of an impression in clay or wax with a seal, or in metal with a punch, and the printing of patterns on textiles are all ancient arts that bear some similarity to printing proper. Paper money, wallpaper, official forms, tickets, texts, images, and many other things have been and are printed with ink on paper. The concern here will be with the printing of texts on paper.
Early Asian Printing
By the ninth century, printing texts in ink on paper by means of relief-carved wooden blocks was a widespread practice in East Asia. The paper to be printed on was laid face down upon the inked block and rubbed over with a hand-held implement to transfer the ink. The earliest use of printing was for the reproduction of texts from the Buddhist scriptures, a ritualized pious deed not necessarily implying that such texts would be read. Some of the oldest examples of printing to survive were deposited in stupas (monuments housing Buddhist relics) in such a way as to be inaccessible to readers. Printing was, however, rapidly applied to many different forms of textual and pictorial reproduction.
China was not only the place where woodblock printing (xylography) was invented, but also the first place where movable type was cast in clay or carved as individual hardwood blocks. The first recorded use of movable metal type, probably cast in bronze, took place in Korea in 1234.
Woodblock printing remained the preferred method in East Asia for all but long print runs of important texts – often texts of a scriptural, ceremonial, administrative, or encyclopedic nature, printed by government commission or under the aegis of a wealthy private patron. The number of characters needed even for simple printing jobs entailed far more complicated systems of storage and retrieval than were required for movable type with alphabetic scripts. Even in Korea, where an alphabetic script had been invented in the fifteenth century, the continuing cultural prestige of Chinese script limited the use of the Korean alphabet until well into the nineteenth century.
Joan Nieuhof, chamberlain of a Dutch trade mission to China in the mid-seventeenth century, included in his report a passage on Chinese printing, based on personal observation and the writings of Jesuit missionaries. He considered skilled Chinese workmen capable of producing woodblock impressions at as quick a rate as European compositors and pressmen with movable type and a printing press, while Chinese methods were better adapted to East Asian scripts and had the further advantage that the publisher could store hardwood blocks, and print off from them as the occasion arose (a form of print-ondemand), rather than having to print a run all at once, perhaps underestimating or overestimating its selling potential. One advantage of metal type that Nieuhof fails to consider is that for long runs it was more durable, and damaged parts more easily replaced.
The Gutenberg Press
Since parchment copies could not be economically produced on a large scale, printing only became a feasible proposition in Europe from the early fifteenth century, when the use of paper had become common. Woodblock printing, primarily of religious images and playing cards, began in Europe around 1400. Some have postulated an Asian inspiration for this, but the issue remains open. By the 1460s, block-books were being printed, combining text and image in a manner that was impossible to achieve with movable type.
The dominant form of printing in early modern Europe, however, was the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, around 1450. Gutenberg’s invention of a means of “mechanical writing” was shrouded in a commercial secrecy that even the surviving legal records of disputes with his business partners have failed to disperse. The technical details of his invention have to be inferred from later presses. The upshot of Gutenberg’s falling-out with his backers was the establishment of rival presses, making it impossible to retain a monopoly on the technology; thereafter, the initiation of new individuals into the mystery of printing in some cases seems to have been on condition that they not set up shop in the immediate locality. As a result, Gutenberg’s technology spread rapidly, and within a century of its invention was in use throughout western Europe and in European settlements in Mexico and Goa.
The “forme,” a locked frame of metal type ready to be inked and printed from, was known to thirteenth-century Korea; one of Gutenberg’s innovations was the press itself, probably based on a wine press. What resulted was a device by which a printer, working a screw-mounted platen by means of a hand-operated bar, evenly pressed the paper against an inked forme. Two sturdy columns, the “cheeks,” not only served as the central support of the press, but held the platen straight during its movement up and down. For the same purpose, the size of the platen was restricted, and each side of a full sheet of paper had to be printed one half at a time. The forme was secured face up in the bed of the press, or “coffin,” and then inked with hand-held inking balls or tampons. The paper, lightly dampened to take the oil-based ink that metal type required, was secured in a light foldover frame, a “tympan,” attached to one end of the coffin. The tympan was folded down over the coffin, the whole was slid under the platen, the bar was pulled one way to apply pressure, then the other to release the platen; the coffin was then moved along and the exercise repeated for the second half of the sheet. The coffin was then slid out again and the tympan opened to remove the printed sheet, which was hung up to dry. The forme of type was prepared by a compositor before being secured in the coffin, from racks of different individual pieces of type. These pieces of type had been cast in a mold that had to be of variable width for different letters, but of a standard height in order to give an even impression. The metal type was an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; the mold was made with a punch. This method of textual reproduction provided greater standardization and considerable savings in time when compared to scribal copying, and for reproducibility of long runs or large texts also offered distinct advantages over woodblock printing.
Consequences Of Gutenberg’s Printing Press
Much debate has surrounded the historical importance of the printing press, which Eisenstein (1979) has viewed as an invention so revolutionary as to mark a clear break with pre-typographical culture, but Chartier (1989) more simply as an important stimulus to the dissemination of cultural practices already inherent in alphabetic script and the codex book. Consideration of non-European history suggests that any technological determinism would be misplaced. Late Ming China, without any new technology, saw a tremendous growth in publishing, and the emergence of a literary class of professional authors, editors, commentators, and anthologists that only partially overlapped with the state-authorized aristocracy of learning established by the imperial examination system. At the same time, awareness of the printing press did not lead to any immediate changes in the book culture of Russia or of the Muslim world, until figures in authority decided that it should. In these cases the printing press was much more an instrument of change than its agent.
The cultural impact of the shift from scribal publication to print may have been only an acceleration of existing trends, certainly in the first decades when printing was simply a mechanical means of producing books otherwise identical to those already being produced by scribes or stationers. But the impact of printing on the technical and economic organization of book production and the book trade was without doubt revolutionary. The physical reproduction of texts on paper came to rely on three skilled technical jobs: casting type (technologically the hardest nut for Gutenberg to crack), composing type with speed and exactness, and pulling the press, which itself demanded great skill to produce a clean impression. The compositors and pressmen worked in the master printer’s shop; most punch-cutters and type-founders set up in business independently, selling type to numerous different printing shops, but some big printing houses cast their own type on the premises. Publishing and bookselling could be independent commercial functions, but in the first two centuries of printing it was usually a single individual who owned the press and bookshop, and decided what to print and sell. Over the course of time, mechanical and commercial activities became increasingly specialized, with separation of the roles of printer and bookseller, and the dividing of type-casting, compositing, and working the press into multiple sub-specialties. Printing workers were among the most skilled and best paid of the time, and their “chapels” were early precursors of unionization. The uniquely well-preserved print shop and archive of the Plantin Office in Antwerp (now the Plantin-Moretus Museum) illuminates every aspect of the trade in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The first decades of printing saw a series of minor but crucial developments in book design: the diversification of Latin types (Blackletter, Roman, Italic, etc.) and the creation of types for printing in Greek, Hebrew, and other scripts; the creation of decorative type and borders, and of methods of combining woodcut illustrations with letterpress text, making the work of illuminators redundant; the perfection of methods of printing in color, particularly in red and black on the same page; and the invention of the title page, first as a means of identifying printed texts and then as a means of advertising them.
The rapid dissemination of the technology, and the imperative to produce books in previously unheard of numbers, and then sell them as quickly as possible, led to new commercial interactions and marketing strategies. Although most printers initially combined the roles of publisher and bookseller, they would also happily act as printer for another bookseller, and vice versa, so that any given bookshop would contain works from many different print shops. Book trade contacts, and especially the great book fairs, initially in Lyons and later in Frankfurt and Leipzig, created new forms of commercial and intellectual networking that linked centers of printing and book-buying across western Christendom.
The very first products of the Gutenberg press were Latin Bibles, printed indulgences, and calendars, all of which required standardized reproduction in relatively large numbers. These were soon followed by Latin grammars, the works of Cicero, and then those of other classical authors read in large numbers, major works of medieval scholarship in theology, canon and civil law, natural philosophy, and medicine, and vernacular books and booklets of all sorts: devotional, educational, self-help, romantic, and sensationalist. By 1600 every type of printed work had seen the light of day, from lottery tickets and flysheets advertising wonder drugs to the great polyglot Bibles that presented parallel texts in three or four different scripts on the same page. There were ever more editions of ancient texts (classical, scriptural, or patristic), even of the more obscure ancient writers, constant reprints of late medieval romances for a popular readership, but also an increasing range of new discoveries, opinions, and arguments made available to the general public.
The controversies of the Reformation greatly stimulated the growth of the press, which presented a new means of disseminating religious propaganda, but also led to stricter regulation, on confessional grounds, of what could be published. The contact that ordinary folk had with texts was increased greatly by the printing of almanacs and catechisms. In the seventeenth century, the interlocking developments in scientific experiment and the publication of results, whether in books, pamphlets, or learned journals, owed a great deal to the printing press as a means of disseminating knowledge.
The Mechanization Of Printing In The Nineteenth Century
For 350 years the Gutenberg press in use in Europe, and increasingly throughout lands of European settlement overseas, saw constant minor improvements but no major modifications. Little had changed between Gutenberg’s own day and the description of printing provided in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, itself a major printing achievement. The last improvement of the handpress era, and the first that considerably increased press output, was Charles Stanhope’s press. Built entirely of iron, this was a much harder-wearing machine than earlier wood-frame presses, saving on repairs and replacement; the platen was large enough to print one side of a full sheet at a single impression, and it was moved by a system of levers and counterweights rather than a screw, so that it required less force to operate. The Stanhope press, brought on to the market in 1802, was greeted by the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804) as a providential invention that made it economically feasible to envisage putting a Bible in every home.
In 1812 the first steam-powered printing machine was built in London by Frederick König. The forme was secured in the flat bed of the machine, as in a Gutenberg press, but inking and impression were both carried out automatically by rollers. König’s machine could produce 800 impressions per hour, as against 250 on a Stanhope press. Within two years König had developed a double-cylinder machine, first taken into use by The Times, that could produce over 1,000 impressions per hour. As with Gutenberg, disputes between König and his backers led to him leaving London, thus speeding the adoption of the new technology elsewhere. The König and Bauer machine works, which he cofounded, exported printing machines across Europe.
In 1844, in New York, Richard Hoe built the first practical rotary printing press – abandoning the flat bed just as König had abandoned the flat platen, so that the paper ran between an impression cylinder and a type cylinder. His machine could produce 8,000 impressions per hour. The Bullock press of 1865 added a continuous roll of paper, boosting the speed of production still further. These developments were of particular interest to newspaper publishers, who throughout the nineteenth century faced the need to print ever larger runs at ever greater speeds.
In parallel with the mechanization of printing itself, machines for making paper, for casting type, and for compositing were developed and refined, patent following patent. From the mid-nineteenth century onward newspapers, cheap novels, and other ephemera were increasingly printed on high-acid wood-pulp paper, made in Fourdrinier machines, as a cheap alternative to traditional rag- or linen-based papers. By the end of the nineteenth century, linotype, photogravure, and offset lithography all provided means of printing without traditional movable type or engraved plates. Lithography was the first European technology to offer undoubted advantages over traditional East Asian methods of reproducing nonalphabetic scripts, and was rapidly adopted in China and Japan, as were later developments. At the same time, the use of western printing technology had been spread beyond areas of European settlement by missionary societies and colonial governments, and as a tool of administrative and religious reformers was making considerable inroads into the traditional book culture of Muslim lands.
Nineteenth-century mechanization was followed in the twentieth century by a profusion of chemical printing processes, electrification, and most recently computerization. Offset filmsetting, or photocomposition, and now computer-to-plate offset printing, have made cast-metal type itself, like the woodblock, obsolete for all but bibliophile editions and quality bespoke printing.
- Annual Bibliography of the History of the Printed Book and Libraries (1970–). The Hague: Nijhoff. From 1989 online at www.kb.nl/bho.
- Chartier, R. (ed.) (1989). The culture of print: Power and the uses of print in early modern Europe (trans. L. G. Cochrane). Cambridge: Polity.
- Chow, K. (2004). Publishing, culture, and power in early modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Darnton, R. (1979). The business of enlightenment: A publishing history of the Encyclopédie 1775– 1800. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
- Eisenstein, E. L. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Febvre, L., and Martin, H-J. (1976). The coming of the book: The impact of printing 1450–1800 (trans. D. Gerard). London and New York: Verso.
- Gaskell, P. (1985). A new introduction to bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon.
- McKenzie, D. F. (1986). Bibliography and the sociology of texts: The Panizzi Lectures 1985. London: British Library.
- Nieuhof, J. (1665). Het gezantschap der Neêrlandtsche Oost-Indische compagnie, aan den grooten Tartarischen cham, den tegenwoordigen keizer van China. Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs.
- Robinson, F. (1993). Technology and religious change: Islam and the impact of print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1), 229–251.
- Voet, L. (1969–1972). The golden compasses: A history and evaluation of the printing and publishing activities of the Officina Plantiniana at Antwerp. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Vangendt.