Printing Industry

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PRINTING INDUSTRY. The origin of printing would seem to be inextricably bound up with that of literacy. While that may indeed have been the case, at this remove it is difficult to be certain. The essence of printing is that multiple copies are made of a sample of written language. How large a sample is reproduced depends on the flexibility of the printing technique in question. The history of printing is to a great extent also the history of paper and of publishing.

Early History of Printing

In classical times, an edition of a written work was produced by having it copied by scribes, usually literate slaves devoted entirely to that purpose. The availability of slave labor made possible editions of up to several thousand copies of a poem or history, each written by hand on a papyrus or parchment scroll, the cost of each thus dependent on the value of the scribe's time.

The early steps toward printing, unlike those of many other arts and crafts, have left clear tracks, easily traced by archaeology. From the handprints dampened with mud and pressed directly on the walls of prehistoric caves, or outlined in blown pigments, to carved ring and cylinder seals used to impress designs in wax or clay, artifacts survive that clearly predate the invention of writing, probably in Mesopotamia, sometime in the fourth millennium b.c.

Perhaps the earliest extant example of printing involving language dates from the seventeenth century b.c. The Phaistos disk, discovered on Crete, bears over a hundred pictographs arranged in a spiral pattern, which have never been deciphered. Whether these characters were ideographic, syllabic, or protoalphabetic, the repeated characters are not merely similar, but in fact are identical impressions made by pressing stamps made of some un-known material into the soft clay—in effect, an example of early typewriting, but not of printing as it is understood today.

At about the beginning of the present era, printing on textiles and other materials was practiced in Europe and Asia. Wood, baked clay, stone, or other carved surfaces could be covered with parchment or fabric and rubbed with solid pigment, producing a positive impression of the incised design. But parchment, vellum, and other such materials were expensive, and papyrus was fragile. With the invention of paper in China, by Ts'ai Lun in a.d. 105, the printing of books from wooden blocks (xylography) became practical, for paper—made from rags, hemp, bark, rope, nets, and other fibrous, readily available materials—combined the qualities of cheapness and durability.

A page was written by hand, with or without illustration, and the thin paper was glued to the smoothed block of wood. The paper was dampened to make the reversed page visible, and the areas not covered by writing were cut away, leaving the printing surface. The block was inked, and a sheet of paper was laid over it and pressed down firmly to transfer the ink from the wood to the paper. Thus, a block had to be carved for each page to be reproduced.

The earliest movable type was produced in China, probably about the beginning of the present era, but Chinese, with approximately 40,000 so-called ideographs, presented an apparently insuperable challenge to this effort. Korean, which has the most purely syllabic form of writing of all languages on earth—has a comparatively concise 2,300 symbols. Cast in bronze, Korean movable type was being used in printing centuries before Europe moved beyond block printing.

Wooden blocks were being used in Europe for printing perhaps eight centuries before the apparently independent invention of movable type in northern Europe. Playing cards, illustrations, and even single pages of written matter were printed in presses derived from wine and fruit presses well before the mid-fifteenth century. But printing a page meant first carving—in reverse—the entire page, in a smoothed block of hardwood, and an error, once made, was virtually impossible to correct.

The growth of the monastery system contemporaneous with the collapse of the Roman Empire supplanted the slave-based system of copying manuscripts. Books to be transcribed were copied, one by one, and especially important works would be further embellished with decorative initials and marginal illustrations, with varying use of color and gilding. Throughout the Middle Ages, the scribes developed various "hands," or styles of lettering, ultimately adding to the classical Roman capitals the minuscule, or lowercase, letters. By the twelfth century, the production of books was becoming a business, as the centers of learning moved from the monasteries to the cities. As the universities arose, the demand for books increased.

Gutenberg's Invention

Johannes Gutenberg, of Mainz, is generally credited with the invention of printing from movable type, beginning in the 1440s. His contribution was more than simply realizing that each letter could be cut as a separate piece rather than carved into the solid block that would make up a page. Trained as a goldsmith, and thus familiar with the techniques of fine metalworking, Gutenberg set out to create the first-ever mass product: an imitation of the individually produced books of his time. He imitated the black letter "gothic" writing style then current in northern Europe, complete with the ligatures, or combinations of letters, including the fi, fl, ff, ffi, and ffl still used today, as well as others. His font, or character set, including eight versions of the lowercase letter "a" and similar variations of other letters, along with all the scribal abbreviations in contemporary use, came to a total of 290 separate characters: capital and small letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and spaces.

To make these characters, Gutenberg invented the adjustable type mold. A letter was first cut and filed, in reverse form, in the end of a steel punch. Once the letter was completed and had been checked and approved, the steel was hardened, and then the cut letter was driven into a soft copper bar to make a positive. This copper impression was fitted into the adjustable mold, which for a given font had a constant height but a variable width, so that narrow letters, such as f, i, j, l, r, and t, could be cast as narrow pieces of type; wider letters—m and w, for example—could be cast correspondingly wider. The adjustable mold thus enabled Gutenberg to set letters in lines of readable words. Gutenberg further invented such "modern" features as hanging punctuation, in which end-of-line hyphens were placed in the margin, past the edge of the type area, and the pins used to position the paper sheet for proper registration of multiple pages.

Gutenberg is known to have printed single-sheet indulgences, which were sold to the Church in editions of several thousand for later individual distribution, many of which are still in existence, and he printed a Latin textbook by Donatus, which was so popular that only single sheets have survived to the present day. His most significant printed book was in fact twofold: a thirty-six line and a forty-two line two-volume Bible, in an edition of perhaps a couple hundred, mostly in paper, but with perhaps as many as fifty printed on the more expensive vellum.

From Gutenberg's first efforts, book printing expanded at a prodigious rate. By 1501, the end of the "incunabulum" or "cradle" period of printing, over 6,000 books had been printed, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as many of the various vernacular languages of Europe. The real measure of Gutenberg's achievement is how minor were the improvements made—or required—in his press, type, and other equipment, in the next three and a half centuries. These changes included the design of more easily readable roman and italic typefaces, which largely supplanted the black letter forms outside the Holy Roman Empire. Presses built of metal made possible the application of greater pressure, thus making it possible to print more pages in a single pass. The cumbersome screw of early presses, which limited the rate of printing to perhaps 250 impressions per hour, was replaced by a system using a complex sprung lever that brought the platen down onto the paper and chase of type somewhat more rapidly, but still only about 300 impressions per hour. In the 1770s, the English printer and inventor John Baskerville devised a system of hardening paper with heat and pressure before printing, which along with the typeface he designed, resulted in a remarkably clear, crisp, readable printed page—at a cost that slowed the adoption of his methods by most printers.

Printing in the New World

The first printing press in the New World was brought by the Spanish to Mexico City less than half a century after the first voyage of Columbus. The press was used in 1539 to print the first book in the Americas, Breve y más compendiosa doctrina cristiana en lengua mexicana y castellana roughly, Brief and Most Compendious Christian Doctrine, in the Mexican and Spanish (Or Castilian) Languages.

Printing came to North America in 1638, when the first press was set up at Harvard College by Stephen Daye and his son Matthew; within two years they had printed The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, familiarly known as the Bay Psalm Book. Within a decade, the press had been taken over by Samuel Green, who produced the first Bible printed in the thirteen British colonies, John Eliot's Algonquian translation, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. Well through the eighteenth century, colonial printers relied on presses, type, and other equipment imported from England and Europe. The Declaration of Independence, for example, was printed in the type designed and cut by William Caslon in 1734. Language aside, Gutenberg would hardly have felt out of place in the print shop of an American newspaper or book publisher, as all printing continued to be done on a flat bed of type, which was inked by hand using a padded leather ball, then overlaid with a sheet of paper, before the pressure was applied by a flat metal platen. Illustrations in books, periodicals, and other printed matter were done primarily in the form of woodcuts, wood engravings (with the design cut into the end of the grain), and copper engravings.

Changes of the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century was a time of explosive change in printing, no less in America than in Europe. In Germany during the 1790s, Aloys Senefelder had invented lithography, the first planographic method of printing: a design was drawn on a flat slab of limestone in pencil, crayon, or other oil-based medium; the stone was dampened, an oil-based ink was applied, and a sheet of paper was laid across the stone. Within a few years, Senefelder had designed and built a press to handle the heavy limestone slabs, sufficiently mechanizing the process to allow him to print hundreds, even into thousands, depending upon the quality maintenance required for each job. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Senefelder developed lithographic printing further, leading at quarter century to multicolor lithography. Heretofore, only relief printing, such as that from the raised surface of type and wood cuts, and intaglio printing, from engravings in which the ink was forced into lines cut or etched into a metal plate, had been available. When typographical headings and body text were added to pictorial matter, the seeds were firmly planted for a newly practical, efficient, feasible, cost-effective method: offset lithography, planographic printing from rotary blankets fully contiguous with the surface to be printed.

One problem in letterpress printing had always been the wear on the type from multiple impressions in the press, a problem exacerbated by the higher pressures of the metal-bodied presses of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, a printer had to have sufficient type on hand to make up new pages while others were in press. A considerable advance was the invention in the early 1800s of the stereotype, in which the typeset page was pressed into a plaster mold, which was then used to cast a solid plate for the press; the individual letters, punctuation marks, and other pieces of type could then be returned to the case for immediate reuse without having to withstand—or succumb to—the repeated force of the press. The electrotype, in which a wax mold of the type was electroplated with copper then filled with lead, was a further development away from printing letterpress directly from type.

Presses and paper changed as well during the Industrial Revolution. The first all-steel press was built in about 1800, and in 1803 in London the brothers Fourdrinier introduced the first paper-making machine to produce a continuous roll, or web, of paper. In 1814, Friedrich König invented the first steam-driven printing press. The cylinder press used a revolving cylinder to bring the paper against the flat bed of type. The rotary press put both paper and type—or rather the curved plate made from the type—on cylinders. The perfecting press made it possible for the first time to print both sides of the paper at one time. The combination of steam power and the paper web, along with stereotypes, revolutionized the industry, making larger editions of books, magazines, and newspapers feasible.

Even so, the presses were still sheet-fed; that is, the web of paper was cut into press-size sheets before it was printed—until 1863, with the introduction in the United States of William Bullock's web-fed newspaper press; a roll of paper was fed into the press, emerging as printed and folded newspapers. Bullock's press, like the later Walter press in England, had to be stopped to change paper rolls. In 1871, American Richard March Hoe's continuous-roll press could produce up to 18,000 newspapers per hour.

Type, however, was still set piece by piece as it had been since the mid-fifteenth century, with spaces added individually to justify (space out) the line to the proper measure, or line width. Various attempts at automating the process of typesetting met with frustration, until in 1886 American inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler introduced the Linotype, a keyboard-driven machine on which the operator set and cast each line as a single solid piece of type-high lead, complete with spacing for justification, automatically spreading the line out to full measure. The fact that each line produced by the machine had, only moments before, existed in the form of molten lead gave this method the apt nickname "hot type." Within a few years, Mergenthaler had improved his invention so that both roman and italic versions of a given typeface could be set on one machine. Once the lines of type had been used to make the stereotype of metal cast in plaster—later the electrotype, in which the type was cast in wax, which was then electrically plated with a thin but sturdy and precise replica of the original, from which these could be used to print, or yet later, to make camera-ready copy, or other form for printing—they could be melted down for reuse. The Linotype held its own as the typesetting method of choice well through the mid-twentieth century, and some were still in use in considerable numbers a century after the machine's introduction.

Innovations of the Twentieth Century

The first practical photocomposition (cold-type) devices appeared in the 1950s, and by the late 1980s had almost entirely displaced the Linotype. These produced a photo-graphic image of the page rather than raised metal type. The pages were then photographed to produce negatives used to make lithographic plates. Modern offset lithography uses the oil-water principle of Senefelder's process, with the slab of limestone replaced by flexible plates of aluminum, steel, or plastic, treated with a light-sensitive chemical. When the plate is covered by a negative of the image to be printed and exposed to light, the image is photographically etched on the plate to accept the oil-based ink; areas not to print on the plate will take water but not oil. The plate is mounted on the press, and the image is offset onto a rubber roller, or blanket, which transfers the ink to the paper. Modern offset web presses have a throughput of over three thousand feet of paper per minute, with the webs changed "on the fly," the beginning of a new roll transferred to the tail of the old without stopping the press.

Offset lithography is the least expensive and most-used printing process. Gravure, in which the ink is trapped within tiny cells (as many as 50,000 per square inch) on the plate for transfer to the paper, is used for printing high-quality color, as for example in magazines and particular kinds of books. Flexographic printing, like letterpress, transfers ink from the raised surface of the plate to the material to be printed, but soft plates, originally rubber and more recently photopolymer, are used, and the ink is more fluid. Flexography allows printing on a wide variety of materials, including plastics, heavy cardboard, and other packaging. Screen printing, in which a fine porous sheet, originally of silk, is treated so that areas to remain unprinted are masked, permits printing on virtually any material, including clothing such as sweatshirts, T-shirts, and heavy plastic and foam-core boards used for signage.

In the 1960s, writer Marshall McLuhan predicted the demise of the "Gutenberg Age," that is, the coming disappearance of print. In fact, the advent of the computer revolution, more properly the microchip revolution, has brought an explosion of new forms of printing. So-called desktop publishing has brought the tools of typesetting that once required a massive investment in hardware and software within the reach of quite literally millions of people worldwide.

Office printers in the early twenty-first century possess multiple capacities, in scanning, duplicating, and assembling written materials, including graphic illustration, which formerly had to be outsourced to professional art studios. While many have bemoaned the falloff in quality that was to be expected when enthusiasm and a few weeks' practice took the place of years of apprenticeship, experience so far indicates that quality is still sought and, however haltingly, will tend to win out in the end. Indeed, the efforts of the amateur publishers in the late twentieth century have already borne fruit in the improved graphic productions of the early twenty-first century On-demand publishing, in which a single or a few copies of a book can be printed and bound as needed, obviating the need for warehouses full of seldom-required texts, has become a reality, with the cost reasonably comparable to that of a conventionally printed short-run book.

And contrary to predictions of a "paperless office," paper is being produced and used at an increased rate since the personal computer first became a familiar sight in homes and offices. Time will tell to what extent the Internet will affect the newspaper, magazine, and book businesses, but five and a half centuries after Gutenberg, over 135,000 new book titles were being published each year, in editions of from a few hundred to tens, even hundreds, of thousands. Just as films did not spell the end of legitimate theater, nor television that of films, it seems likely that the new forms of publishing—electronic in any of various ways—are more likely to supplement than to supplant the familiar.


The Chicago Manual of Style. 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Lawson, Alexander. Anatomy of a Typeface. Boston: David R. Godine, 1990.

Lee, Marshall. Bookmaking: The Illustrated Guide to Design/Production/Editing. 2d ed. New York: Bowker, 1979.

Nakanishi, Akira. Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1982.

Olmert, Michael. The Smithsonian Book of Books. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1992.

Skillin, Marjorie E., Robert M. Gay, et al. Words into Type. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.


See alsoPublishing Industry .