Fewer people would have been able to read, many would still be speaking in Latin, some historical events would never have been reported to us, and the greatest scientific discoveries would have travelled centuries behind. This would have been the case if printing had not been invented.
One of the sections of our blog, entitled “Press Planet”, is full of in-depth information for paper and ink enthusiasts, but this section was still missing an article tracing the history of the development of printing up to the present day. So here it is! We would like to take you on a journey through time in which we will take a look at the most important printing techniques and some of the interesting facts about them. A fascinating history spanning fifteen centuries, which we must summarise by keeping only the essential.
First step: woodblock printing
We are in the East, in 6th century AD China, the time of the Tang dynasty. One of the great inventions of the Great Empire was a system that allowed printing by means of carved wooden matrices, inked and printed on a sheet of paper. Such is the magnitude of this discovery that modern Chinese historiography lists printing as one of the four great inventions of ancient China.
One of the earliest books printed with wooden blocks is a copy of the Sūtra of the Diamond (868 AD), a roll of six sheets of paper over five metres long. A recently discovered Korean pagoda has also brought to light an even older Buddhist text, which would therefore date from 750-751 AD.
Second stage: movable type printing
We now come to the introduction of movable type, an invention that again comes from China and is one of the most important steps in the history of printing. In 1041, the typographer Bi Sheng invented movable type made of clay which, unfortunately, broke very easily. In 1298, the inventor Wang Zhen started to use wooden type that was much more resistant and also improved the quality of printing by inventing a complex system of rotating tables.
It was in the 15th century that Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe. The heart of his technique is the punch, a steel parallelepiped on top of which is engraved, in relief and inverted, a typographic character (a number, a letter, a punctuation mark). The punch forms the matrix into which the characters are fused, which are then placed on a plate, inked and printed on the paper.
What are the three major innovations developed by Gutenberg?
The use, for the first time, of oil-based inks, which were more durable than previous water-based inks.
Creation of much stronger typefaces made of an alloy of lead, tin and antimony.
Invention of the first printing press, based on the grape press.
On February 23, 1455, after almost a year of experimentation, the “Gutenberg Bible” is printed in 180 copies.
Third stage: the rotary press
A leap in time brings us to 1843, in the United States, where Richard March Hoe invented the first rotary press in history, perfected in 1846 and patented in 1847. In its early days, this printing system was fed sheet by sheet, but in 1863 William Bullock introduced the reel feed: the images to be printed are wound around rotating cylinders, replacing the flat part that used to exert the pressure needed to print. The paper now passes through a cylinder that exerts a much higher pressure. The mechanisation of the process and the introduction of reels enabled the rotary press to print up to 8,000 copies per hour, a feature that earned it the title of the first large-scale letterpress machine.
In 1846, the rotary press made its debut at the Philadelphia Public Ledger, the newspaper of the American city of the same name
Fourth stage: offset printing
In 1875, Robert Barclay developed the offset printing technique and in 1904 Ira Washington Rubel adapted it to paper. It is an indirect printing process based on a rather simple chemical/physical principle, which is the repulsion between water and a fatty substance.
The printing process, however, is far from simple. The main actor is the offset plate divided into two surfaces: the imaged, lipophilic surface, which is able to retain the ink, and the non-imaged, hydrophilic surface, which repels the ink. The plate is wetted with a solution that binds to the non-image surface and then inked. The ink thus adheres only to the images which are first transferred to a rubber cylinder and then printed on paper.
What advantages does offset printing offer?
The very high definition and resolution of the sign.
High quality printing on all papers, including those with a less smooth surface.
What are the disadvantages? Because of their size and the high maintenance requirements, offset machines are only suitable for large-scale production.
Fifth step: the linotype
In 1885 the German technician Ottmar Mergenthaler invented a type-setting machine, the linotype. The advantage of this system is its ability to automatically compose the lines of type for texts. It works in much the same way as a typewriter: the linotypist composes texts by pressing keys on a keyboard. Each keystroke on the keyboard releases a matrix corresponding to a character and this matrix is aligned with others. The line of dies thus composed is filled with molten lead, inked and used to print the characters on paper.
Although the process may seem complex, the linotype speeds up printing considerably. Typographers no longer had to compose the lines to be printed by hand, character by character, as everything was mechanised.
In 1886, the linotype made its debut at the “New York Tribune”, a New York newspaper founded in 1841. It appeared in Italy in 1897, particularly in Rome, in the offices of the “Tribuna”, one of the capital’s major daily newspapers.
Did you know that Thomas Edison called the linotype “the eighth wonder of the world”? That says a lot about its place in the history of printing.
Stage six: laser printing
We come to 1971, the year Xerox Corporation developed laser technology. With the laser printer, the contents to be printed are generated electronically and reproduced directly on paper. In particular, the image is transmitted by the laser to a photosensitive selenium roller (the “drum” or “magnetic roller”) and, through the toner, it is represented directly on the paper. With this system, it is possible to print approximately 20,000 lines per minute. A real record! But above all, anyone can now print what they need independently.
The very first laser printers were much more cumbersome, complex and expensive than they are today. It was not until 1982 that the first desktop laser printer appeared, a Canon. Because of its high price, it is still not accessible to everyone. The use of laser printers did not become widespread until the early 1990s, with inkjet, needle and dye-sublimation models. It was then that printers began to become more affordable, more compact and more powerful.
The final stage: the 3D printer
We have finally arrived at the present day! Let’s end this journey through time with the 3D printer. In fact, this printing technique dates back to a few years ago, to 1983, when Chuck Hull first used UV rays to harden varnishes. This engineer called his invention “stereolithography”, a method of creating solid objects by superimposing several layers of a photosensitive liquid polymer struck by ultraviolet light. But what is the starting point? A 3D model produced by modelling software, such as Blender, AutoCAD or OpenSCAD.
There is now a wide choice of technologies for 3D printing, which differ from each other particularly in the way the different layers are assembled. Either materials that melt under heat, liquid materials that harden, or laminated materials that are then joined together are used.
It took several years for 3D printing to become a mass phenomenon. This is because the technology was initially unaffordable. Today, many sectors are using 3D printing: from architecture to archaeology, art and healthcare, and it is more than certain that others will follow their example.
But what will be the next milestone in the history of printing? We are really curious to find out and to continue this journey with you.