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By Pete

A Brief History Of Printing

Fri 4th November 2022

A Brief History Of Printing

If it wasn’t for the printing press, you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now! The invention of Print changed the world as we knew it. Think about it, everything you read daily is all down to the creation of Print and the printing press. Shall we start on this magical mystery tour on the history of printing? 

Woodblock Printing - 6th Century 

We take our first trip to 6th-century China during the Tang dynasty. There were many inventions to emerge from this great empire: The one we’re interested in is a system of Printing using wooden blocks that were engraved, inked and pressed onto a sheet of paper.

Fun fact; one of the first books printed with woodblocks was a copy of the Diamond Sutra, a six-sheet scroll over five metres long. 

Another worthy mention is this invention from China. In 1041, the printer Bi Sheng invented movable clay type. However, with it being clay, it had the tendency to break easily. In 1298, they started using a stronger wooden version and invented a complex system of revolving tables that improved printing quality.

Printing press - 1440

Bang! Now fast forward to the 15th Century and the introduction of movable type in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg. It included a number, letter or punctuation mark. The punch was cast, placed on a tray, inked and pressed onto the paper.

Gutenberg was also the first to use oil-based inks, which lasted longer than the water-based inks used previously. His type was also more robust because it was made from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. And his inspiration for the printing press? He was inspired by the grape press. The more you know!

In 1455, after about a year’s experimentation, the first Gutenberg Bible was published. He then went on to print 180 copies of the bible. 

The Rotary Press - 1843

We have now ended up in the 1800s. The first regularly-printed newspapers appeared in the 16th Century, thanks to Gutenberg’s movable type press. But it wasn’t until 1843 that William Bullock introduced and created the Rotary Press. With the new invention, The New York Sun made history by becoming the first paper printed on a rotary press. The result of the rotary press, which replaced flat printing plates with cylindrical rollers and could print thousands of reasonably-priced issues every day. Of course, this step into the future of print and paper production is also the cause of the industrialisation of paper production and paper mills.

Offset Printing 1875 (1904 for paper)

A little trip to 1904, Ira Washington Rubel adapted offset printing for paper. This indirect printing method is based on a straightforward chemical phenomenon: the repulsion between oil and water. 

The printing process is anything but simple, though. An offset plate is divided into two areas: the image area, which is lipophilic and therefore attracts the ink, and the non-image area, which is hydrophilic and repels the ink. The plate is dipped in a solution that binds to the non-image area and then inked. This way, the ink only adheres to the image, which is then transferred to a rubber cylinder and printed onto the paper.

Most books you’ve read were likely offset-printed, which remains the most popular print method for mass-market publications today. 

Electrophotography - 1948

In 1948 there was another giant leap in the history of Printing. Electrophotography. This printing technique uses light and electric charges to transfer an original image onto a rotary-style print drum using dry ink (toner), which is then rolled onto another sheet of paper to make a near-exact copy.

Inkjet Printing - 1976

While many companies worked to advance a decades-old idea of propelling tiny droplets of ink onto paper, Hewlett-Packard was the first to offer this “inkjet” technology in a commercially available printer. Many others followed suit and developed their own methods to spray the ink. By the 1990s, inkjet printing was the most popular form of household printing. But the cost of the inks, and their tendency to degrade or clog delicate print nozzles, have seen that title move to the latest and greatest print technology.

Laser Printing - the 1970s

Inventors applied principles of electrophotography to Printing directly from digital sources in the 1970s with the first “laser” printers. These were extremely expensive and primarily used in high-volume commercial applications, such as printing huge batches of individually numbered checks. As personal computers and desktop publishing software gained wider adoption, this type of Printing made its way into many homes and offices in the 1980s, which also saw the development of colour laser printing.

3D Printing - Present (for now)

We’ve reached the present day. We end our journey through time in the era of the 3D printer. Today, there are various technologies for 3D Printing. They mainly differ in how they assemble different layers: they can use materials that are melted by heat and liquid materials that are hardened or laminated and bound together.

It has taken years for 3D Printing to become widely used. Why? Because the cost of this technology was initially extremely high. But now, 3D Printing is used in many fields – from architecture to archaeology, from art to healthcare – with more being added all the time.

As you can see, the history of Print has been impressive. Today, new iterations of laser printing have become so advanced that they can rival offset Printing in volume and quality with a fraction of the setup cost. Systems like the HP Indigo digital printing press used by Blurb allow anyone to publish full-colour books, one copy at a time or in runs of thousands. 

Gutenberg would be flabbergasted. 

What will the next step in the history of Printing be? We can’t wait to find out and continue this journey with you.

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