Printing History And Development


Printing: History And Development Essay, Research Paper

Printing: History and Development


Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the

printing press is widely thought of as the origin of mass communication–

it marked Western culture’s first viable method of disseminating ideas and

information from a single source to a large and far-ranging audience. A

closer look at the history of print, however, shows that the invention of

the printing press depended on a confluence of both cultural and technological

forces that had been unfolding for several centuries. Print culture and

technology also needed to go through centuries of change after Gutenberg’s

time before the "massification" of audiences could fully crystallize.

The story of print is a long and complex one. It may be too much to claim

that print was the single cause of the massive social, political and psychological

changes it is associated with. However, print did wield enormous influence

on every aspect of European culture. Some historians suggest that print

was instrumental in bringing about all the major shifts in science, religion,

politics and the modes of thought that are commonly associated with modern

Western culture.

The key technological, cultural and psychological issues associated with

the emergence of the printing press can be organized into the following


China: The Technological Roots




migration to Europe



Gutenberg and the Historical Moment in Western







metal type




Protestant Reformation


Caxton and print in England

Print and Modern Thought




scientific community


rise of an intellectual class


oral, written and print cultures


and individual rights

Print in the U.S.


colonial press in Cambridge


penny press: news for all

Advances in Print Technology


since the Linotype


in contemporary print culture

China: The Technological Roots

The invention of the printing press depended on the invention and refinement

of paper in China over

several centuries. The Chinese had developed "rag" paper, a

cheap cloth-scrap and plant-fiber substitute for cumbersome bark

and bamboo strips and for precious silk paper, by A.D. 105. Chinese

prisoners passed a mature technology on to their Arab captors in the eighth

century. The secrets of the craft that were revealed to Europeans

in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were substantially the same techniques

the Chinese had passed to the Arabs several centuries earlier.

Long before the Gutenberg press, Chinese innovations in ink, block printing

and movable clay type all fed the technological push toward expanding

the written word’s range of influence. Althought the European innovations

came much later, European culture certainly felt the impact of print more

dramatically than the Chinese did. Because their alphabet employs thousands

of visually specific ideograms, the use of movable type was much more

labor-intensive for the Chinese. Consequently, it did not change production

efficiency as dramatically as it did for Europeans. Some historians will

also assert that the sequential, linear and standardized character of

the printed word especially suited Western impulses toward progress and

conquest– a disposition that favors quick and intense change.

Gutenberg and the Historical

Moment in Western Europe

In the early 1450’s rapid cultural change in Europe fueled a growing

need for the rapid and cheap production of written documents. Johannes

Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz

in southern Germany, borrowed money to develop a technology that could

address this serious economic bottleneck. From its European debut in the

12th century, paper gradually proved to be a viable alternative to the

animal-skin vellum and parchment that had been the standard means of carrying

written communication. Rag paper became increasingly cheap and plentiful

while literacy expanded; the two processes accelerated, in part, by stimulating

each other. The need for documentation continued to increase with expansions

in trade and in governmental scope and complexity. Scribal monks sanctioned

by the Church had overseen the maintenance and hand-copying of sacred

texts for centuries, but the secular world began to foster its own version

of the scribal copyist profession. The many new scriptoria, or

writing shops, that sprang up employed virtually every literate cleric

who wanted work.

Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing press

that used movable metal type. Despite their rapid growth in numbers, secular

scribes simply could not keep up with the commercial demand for books.

Gutenberg also saw strong market potential in selling indulgences, the

slips of paper offering written dispensation from sin that the Church

sold to fund crusades, new buildings and other projects devoted to expanding

its dominance. In fact, press runs of 200,000 indulgences at a time were

common soon after the handwritten versions became obsolete.

Gutenberg developed his press by combining features of existing technologies:

textile, papermaking and wine presses. Perhaps his most significant innovation,

however, was the efficient molding and casting of movable metal type.

Each letter was carved into the end of a steel punch which was then hammered

into a copper blank. The copper impression was inserted into a mold and

a molten alloy made of lead, antimony and bismuth was poured in. The alloy

cooled quickly and the resulting reverse image of the letter attached

to a lead base could be handled in minutes. The width of the lead base

varied according to the letter’s size (for example, the base of an "i"

would not be nearly as wide as the base of a "w"). This emphasized

the visual impact of words and clusters of words rather than evenly spaced

letters. This principle lent an aesthetic elegance and sophistication

to what seemed to many to be the magically perfect regularity of a printed

page. Gutenberg designed a Latin print Bible which became his signature

work. He launched a run of some 300 two-volume Gutenberg

Bibles which sold for 30 florins each, or about three years of a clerk’s

wage. Despite the dramatic success of his invention, Gutenberg managed

to default on a loan and lost his whole printing establishment. His techniques

were made public and his creditor won the rights to the proceeds from

the Gutenberg Bibles.

The clergy were eager to take advantage of the power of print. Printed

indulgences, theological texts, even how-to manuals for conducting inquisitions

became common tools for the spread of the Church’s influence. But the

Church had even more difficulty controlling the activities of printers

than they had with the secular scribes. The production and distribution

of an expanding variety of texts quickly became too widespread to contain.

Printed copies of Martin

Luther’s theses, for example, were widely and rapidly disseminated.

They prompted far-reaching discussions that became the foundation for

mounting opposition to the Church’s role as the sole custodian of spiritual

truth. Bibles printed in vernacular languages rather than Latin fueled

the Protestant Reformation based on the assertion that there was no need

for the Church to interpret scripture–an individual’s relationship with

God could be, at least in theory, direct and personal.

In 1476, William

Caxton set up England’s first printing press. Caxton had been a prolific

translator and found the printing press to be a marvelous way to amplify

his mission of promoting popular literature. Caxton printed and distributed

a variety of widely appealing narrative titles including the first popular

edition of Chaucer’s The

Canterbury Tales. Caxton was an enthusiastic editor and he determined

the diction, spelling and usage for all the books he printed. He realized

that English suffered from so much regional variation that many people

couldn’t communicate with others from their own country. Caxton’s contributions

as an editor and printer won him a good portion of the credit for standardizing

the English language.

Print and Modern Thought

The scientific revolution that would later challenge the entrenched "truths"

espoused by the Church was also largely a consequence of print technology.

The scientific principle of repeatability–the impartial verification

of experimental results– grew out of the rapid and broad dissemination

of scientific insights and discoveries that print allowed. The production

of scientific knowledge accelerated markedly. The easy exchange of ideas

gave rise to a scientific community that functioned without geographical

constraints. This made it possible to systematize methodologies and to

add sophistication to the development of rational thought. As readily

available books helped expand the collective body of knowledge, indexes

and cross-referencing emerged as ways of managing volumes of information

and of making creative associations between seemingly unrelated ideas.

Innovations in the accessibility of knowledge and the structure of human

thought that attended the rise of print in Europe also influenced art,

literature, philosophy and politics. The explosive innovation that characterized

the Renaissance

was amplified, if not in part generated by, the printing press. The rigidly

fixed class structure which determined one’s status from birth based on

family property ownership began to yield to the rise of an intellectual

middle class. The possibility of changing one’s status infused the less

priveleged with ambition and a hunger for education.

Print technology facilitated a communications revolution that reached

deep into human modes of thought and social interaction. Print, along

with spoken language, writing and electronic media, is thought of as one

of the markers of key historical shifts in communication that have attended

social and intellectual transformation. Oral

culture is passed from one generation to the next through the full

sensory and emotional atmosphere of interpersonal interaction. Writing

facilitates interpretation and reflection since memorization is no longer

required for the communication and processing of ideas. Recorded history

could persist and be added to through the centuries. Written manuscripts

sparked a variation on the oral tradition of communal story-telling–it

became common for one person to read out loud to the group.

Print, on the other hand, encouraged the pursuit of personal privacy.

Less expensive and more portable books lent themselves to solitary and

silent reading. This orientation to privacy was part of an emphasis on

individual rights and freedoms that print helped to develop. Print injected

Western culture with the principles of standardization, verifiability

and communication that comes from one source and is disseminated to many

geographically dispersed receivers. As illustrated by dramatic reform

in religious thought and scientific inquiry, print innovations helped

bring about sharp challenges to institutional control. Print facilitated

a focus on fixed, verifiable truth, and on the human ability and right

to choose one’s own intellectual and religious path.

Print in the U.S.

Religious, intellectual and political freedom served as rallying cries

for the Europeans who were drawn to the American colonies. Stephen Daye,

a locksmith whose son Matthew was a printer’s apprentice, brought the

continent’s first press to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638. The Dayes

printed a broadside and an almanac in their first year. In 1640 they produced

1700 copies of the first book printed in the colonies, the Bay

Psalm Book. The printing press quickly became central to political

and religious expression in the New World. Writers and printers like Benjamin

Franklin were heroes of the time. Print was at the heart of the dissemination

and defense of visionary ideas that shaped the American Revolution.

Until the 19th century Gutenberg’s print technology had not changed dramatically.

In the early 1800’s the development of continuous

rolls of paper, a steam-powered press and a way to use iron instead

of wood for building presses all added to the efficiency of printing.

These technological advances made it possible for newspaperman Benjamin

Day to drop the price of his New York Sun to a penny a copy in 1833. Some

historians point to this "penny press" as the first true mass

medium–in Day’s words, his paper was designed to "lay before the

public, at a price well within the means of everyone, all the news of

the day."

Advances in Print Technology

A number of dramatic technological innovations have since added a great

deal of character and dimension to the place of print in culture. Linotype,

a method of creating movable type by machine instead of by hand, was introduced

in 1884 and marked a significant leap in production speed. The typewriter

made the production and "look" of standardized print much more

widely accessible. The process of setting type continued to go through

radical transformations with the development of photo-mechanical composition,

cathode ray tubes and laser technologies. The Xerox

machine made a means of disseminating print documents available to everyone.

Word processing transformed editing and contributed dramatic new flexibility

to the writing process. Computer printing has already moved through several

stages of innovation, from the first daisy-wheel and dot matrix "impact"

printers to common use of the non-impact printers: ink-jet, laser and


Both the Internet and interactive multimedia

are providing ways of employing the printed word that add new possibilities

to print’s role in culture. The printed word is now used for real-time social

interaction and for individualized navigation through interactive documents.

It is difficult to gauge the social and cultural impact of new media without

historical distance, but these innovations will most likely prove to signal

another major transformation in the use, influence and character of human communication.



T.F., The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward,

(Ronald Press:1925)


Elizabeth, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge

University Press, 1983).


Michael, The Smithsonian Book of Books (New York:Wing Books, 1992).


Graphion’s Online Type Museum


in the Jones

MultiMedia Encylopedia CD-ROM

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