Printing: History and Development
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the
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
forces that had been unfolding for several centuries. Print culture and
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
changes it is associated with. However, print did wield enormous influence
politics and the modes of thought that are commonly associated with modern
migration to Europe
Caxton and print in England
Print and Modern Thought
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
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
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
each other. The need for documentation continued to increase with expansions
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
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:
however, was the efficient molding and casting of movable metal type.
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
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
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.
mounting opposition to the Church’s role as the sole custodian of spiritual
for the Church to interpret scripture–an individual’s relationship with
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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