The coming of the printing press must have seemed as if it would turn the world upside down in the way it spread and, above all, democratized knowledge. Provided you could pay and read, what was on the shelves in the new bookshops was yours for the taking. —James E. Burke

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Printing Press

A 16th-century print shop. Engraving by Philippe Galle (1537-1612). Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

The printing press is a mechanical device for printing multiple copies of a text on sheets of paper. Building on movable type which made its way to Europe from China in the 1300s, the use of movable type to mass produce printed works was popularized by a German goldsmith and eventual printer, Johannes Gutenberg, in the 1450s. While there are several local claims for the invention of the printing press in other parts of Europe, including Laurens Janszoon Coster in the Netherlands and Panfilo Castaldi in Italy, Gutenberg is credited by most scholars with its invention.

Block Printing

The original method of printing was block printing, pressing sheets of paper into individually carved wooden blocks (xylography). Block printing is believed to have originated in Asia. Recently, an excavation of a Korean pagoda unearthed a Buddhist sutra which dates to 750-751 CE, and is now considered the oldest discovered printed work in the world. Before this discovery, it was believed that the earliest known printed text was the Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist scripture), printed in China in the mid-9th century. The technique was also known in Europe, where it was mostly used to print Bibles. Because of the difficulties inherent in carving massive quantities of minute text for every block, and given the levels of peasant illiteracy at the time, texts such as the “Pauper's Bibles” emphasized illustrations and used words sparsely. As a new block had to be carved for each page, printing different books was an incredibly time-consuming activity.

Movable Type

Movable type allowed for much more flexible processes than hand copying or block printing. It was invented in 1041 by Bi Sheng in China. Sheng used clay type, which broke easily, but Wang Zhen later carved more durable type from wood. Eventually, the Goryeo dynasty of Korea created metal type and established a brass type foundry in 1234, using Chinese characters. Examples of this metal type are on display in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The oldest extant movable metal print book is the Jikji, printed in Korea in 1377.

Since there are thousands of Chinese characters, the benefit of the technique was not as large as with alphabetic-based languages, which typically are made up of fewer than 50 characters. Still, movable type spurred scholarly pursuits in Song China and facilitated more creative modes of printing. Nevertheless, movable type was not extensively used in China until the European-style printing press was introduced in relatively recent times.

Johann Gutenberg is credited with inventing the first printing press. Gutenberg is also credited with the first use of an soy-based ink. He printed on both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced into Europe somewhat earlier from China by way of the Arabs, who had a paper mill in operation in Bagdad as early as 794.

Before inventing the printing press in the 1450s, Gutenberg had worked as a goldsmith. Without a doubt, the skills and knowledge of metals that he learned as a craftsman were crucial to the later invention of the press. Gutenberg made his type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality prints.

Other Claimants to the Invention

The claim that Gutenberg introduced or invented the printing press in Europe is not universally accepted. One other candidate advanced is the Dutchman Laurens Janszoon Coster (1370—1440).

Coster was one of the early European printers. He was an important citizen of Haarlem and held the position of sexton (Koster) of Sint-Bavokerk. He is mentioned in contempory documents as an assessor (scabinus), and as the city treasurer. He probably perished in the plague that visited Haarlem in 1439-1440; his widow is mentioned in the latter year.

Some claim he was the first European to invent the printing press, although the little evidence there is about this matter seems to show that Johann Gutenberg preceded him. Either way, he is somewhat of a local hero.

There are no extant works definitively printed by Laurens; however, there is a tradition that he was carving letters from bark for the amusement of his grandchildren and observed that the letters left impressions on the sand. This is said to have occurred in the 1420s. He is said to have printed several books including Speculum Humanæ Salvationis with several assistants including Johann Fust, and it was Fust who, when Laurens was nearing death, stole his presses and type and took them to Mainz where he entered partnership with Gutenburg. The earlist description of this story dates from 1568 in a history by Hadrianus Junius, a Dutch intellectual.

Diffusion of Printing in Europe

In Europe, books were copied mainly in monasteries, or (from the 13th century) in commercial scriptoria, where scribes wrote them out by hand. Books were therefore a scarce resource. While it might take someone a year or more to hand copy a Bible, with the Gutenberg press it was possible to create several hundred copies a year, with two or three people who could read (and proofread!), and a few people to support the effort. Each sheet still had to be fed manually, which limited the reproduction speed, and the type had to be set manually for each page, which limited the number of different pages created per day. Books produced in this period, between the first work of Johann Gutenberg and the year 1500, are collectively referred to as incunabula.

The rise of printed works was immediately popular. Not only did the papal court contemplate making printing presses an industry requiring a license from the Catholic Church (an idea rejected in the end), but as early as the 15th century some nobles refused to have printed books in their libraries, thinking that to do so would sully their valuable handcopied manuscripts. Similar resistance was later encountered in the Far East and much of the Islamic world, where calligraphic traditions were extremely important.

Despite this resistance, Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly, and within thirty years of its invention towns and cities across Europe had functional printing presses. Johann Heynlin, for example, introduced the first press to Paris in 1470. The city of Tübingen saw its first printed work, a commentary by Paul Scriptoris, in 1498. It has been suggested that this rapid expansion shows not only a higher level of industry (fueled by the high-quality European paper mills that had been opening over the previous century) than expected, but also a significantly higher level of literacy than has often been estimated.

The first printing press in a Muslim territory opened in Andalusia in the 1480s. This printing press was run by a family of Jewish merchants who printed texts with the Hebrew script. After the reconquista in the 1490s, the press was moved from Granada to Istanbul (a popular destination for thousands of Andalusian Jews).

Effects of Printing on Culture

The discovery and establishment of the printing of books with movable type marks a paradigm shift in the way information was transferred in Europe. The impact of printing is comparable to the development of language, and the invention of the alphabet, as far as its effects on the society. It is, however, important to note that there has been much recent doubt about the dominance of print. Handwritten manuscripts continued to be produced, and the influence of the printed word on oral communication meant that no one form of communication could dominate.

They also led to the establishment of a community of scientists (previously scientists were mostly isolated) who could easily communicate their discoveries, bringing on the scientific revolution. Also, although early texts were printed in Latin, books were soon produced in common European vernacular, leading to the decline of the Latin language.

Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful. 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.” Before, the author was less important, since a copy of Aristotle made in Paris might not be 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. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing from oral readings to silent, private reading. This gradually raised the literacy level as well, revolutionizing education.

It can also be argued that printing changed the way Europeans thought. With the older illuminated manuscripts, the emphasis was on the images and the beauty of the page. Early printed works emphasized principally the text and the line of argument. In the sciences, the introduction of the printing press marked a move from the medieval language of metaphors to the adoption of the scientific method.

In general, knowledge came closer to the hands of the people, since printed books could be sold for a fraction of the cost of illuminated manuscripts. There were also more copies of each book available, so that more people could discuss them. Within 50-60 years, the entire library of “classical” knowledge had been printed on the new presses. The spread of works also led to the creation of copies by other parties than the original author, leading to the formulation of copyright laws. Furthermore, as the books spread into the hands of the people, Latin was gradually replaced by the national languages. This development was one of the keys to the creation of modern nations.

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.

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.” It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it possible to get similar results with less human involvement. Some few practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

Printing in the Industrial Age

The Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying, and as testament to its effectiveness, it was essentially unchanged from the time of its invention until the Industrial Revolution, some three hundred years later. The “old style” press (as it was termed in the nineteenth century) was constructed of wood and could produce 250 impressions per hour of simple work using a well experienced two-man crew.

The invention of the steam-powered press, credited to Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer in 1812, made it possible to print tens of thousands of copies of a page in a day.

Koenig and Bauer sold two of their first models to The Times in London in 1814, capable of making 1100 impressions per hour. The first edition so printed was on November 28, 1814. Koenig and Bauer went on to perfect the early model so that it could print on both sides of a sheet at once. This began to make 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.

Later on in the middle of the 19th century the rotary press (invented in 1843 in the United States 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 makeready time for a small job was under 15 minutes) and quick production (even on treadle-powered jobbing presses it was considered normal to get 1000 impressions per hour with one pressman, with speeds of 1500 impressions per hour often attained on simple envelope work). Job printing emerged as a reasonably cost-effective duplicating solution for commerce at this time.

Movable type has been credited as the single most important invention of the millennium.

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