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PRINT AND PRINTING The process, business, art, and outcome of producing standardized LETTERS and TEXTS, often accompanied by diagrams, pictures, and other addenda, by applying ink to paper and other surfaces so as to produce many copies of the same piece of work. Printing is often treated as an aspect or offshoot of WRITING, but differs from it in at least four ways: (1) Writing varies from person to person, but print retains invariant shapes regardless of who uses it. (2) Writing follows relatively informal rules of positioning and sequencing on paper, but printing keeps rigidly to such conventions as margin sizes, line spaces, number of lines per page, and type chosen for a project. (3) Whereas writing is slow and produces approximate copies only through handcopying or the use of carbon paper or photocopying, printing is rapid and produces identical copies in sequence until the process stops or ink and paper run out. (4) The legibility of handwriting varies, but the legibility of print is consistent.


The art of making inked reproductions from woodblocks and movable signs was developed in the 6–8c by the Chinese and Koreans. It is uncertain how the practice was disseminated from East to West. The Islamic world was not interested in printing, but reports that reached Europe of such an invention appear to have prompted speculation and experiment. The Western invention of printing from movable type is generally ascribed to Johann Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz in Germany. Although scholars dispute the details of the early production of his press, the first dated item is a copy of a 42-line Bible, which a scribe finished rubricating (entering CAPITALS and other matter) on 24 August 1456. There had been printing from woodblocks before Gutenberg. His genius was to perfect a number of separate but available technologies for printing from type. He appears to have devised a successful mould for casting regularly sized and spaced metal type, a heavy ink that would adhere to this type, and a variation of a press that would give an impression on paper. His 42-line Bible and other productions, far from being rudimentary initial experiments, are technically superior works of layout and typography.


By the early 16c, printing and systems for distributing printed materials had spread throughout the main cities of Europe and stabilized. The English merchant William CAXTON learned the art in Cologne and practised it in Bruges before setting up the first printing press in England, in Westminster in 1476. The first printing in India (by Portuguese Jesuits in Goa) was in 1556; in the North American colonies of England it was in Boston in 1638; in French Canada in Quebec City in 1752; in Australia, 1796; in New Zealand, 1835. At first, printed materials imitated manuscripts in subject matter, design, and distribution, but printing gradually established its own conventions. By the 1520s, large numbers of relatively cheap, fairly rapidly distributed books had become available to an expanded reading public. The technology remained stable until the end of the 18c, though markets for printed matter grew, especially for journals and newspapers. Because of the quantities involved and the capital-intensive nature of the business, the early printing and publishing of books tended to be centralized. In Britain, in the early centuries of printing, the government encouraged centralization in London and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, because printing and publishing could easily be controlled and censored from there. In the 19c, however, a great expansion took place because of the spread of education, large and small printers set up shop in many places, and publishers (becoming from the 18c steadily more distinct from printers) became established outside the major centres in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The technology also changed with new kinds of presses and, by the end of the century, with new systems for typesetting. In the 20c, there has been a pronounced shift towards general LITERACY and a vast provision of printed materials throughout the world and in particular throughout the English-speaking world.

Nature and impact

A printed book not only involves a different technology from a manuscript, but results in a different product. Whereas manuscripts were copied in very small quantities, early books were printed in editions that averaged 250 to 1,250 copies. In the late 20c, however, an academic book might have 1,500 copies and a best-selling popular paperback a first print-run of 250,000. This economy of scale means that material can be rapidly disseminated. In the early centuries of printing, pamphlets and other more ephemeral material, often religious or political, could present issues of immediate importance. Many debates in the Reformation took place in print and in England little pamphlet wars, such as the late 16c Marprelate Controversy (in which anonymous tracts, printed on a secret press, irreverently attacked bishops and defended Puritanism), set the stage for sustained radical writing during the following century. The quantity of books available helped increase the numbers of the reading public, which in turn increased the number of books and the importance of literacy as a social tool. Although writing and reading have been associated with a minority educated class, printers from Caxton onwards, and especially from the 19c onwards, have often tried to extend readership by publishing popular and entertaining works. Currently, most books in English are aimed at specific audiences, but some would-be best-sellers are directed at an undifferentiated mass of millions of potential readers. For newspapers and magazines, the size of the audience is greater still. Increasingly sophisticated textbooks, books of self-instruction, and works of reference have also been a consequence of printing. Although rudimentary in the early centuries, they have become so refined that a surgeon can perform complex procedures based on text alone.

Printing and culture

Some scholars, following Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, suggest that print has created its own mental world, that it has been an agent of cultural change at a profound level. Although the attractiveness of such a theory may arise as much from a need to define literacy during a period of flux (the advent of cinematic and electronic media), the notion of a ‘culture’ associated with print bears cautious examination, especially in the way the press disseminates written language and at the same time changes it. Because of the nature of their work, printers affect the shape and style of printed matter. Traditional SPELLING and PUNCTUATION have been standardized by print and syntax and style influenced by it. The history of dictionaries and encyclopedias is closely bound up with the history of printing; a profound reliance on alphabetic order, though generated in the late Middle Ages, is basic to the culture of print: see DICTIONARY. The most pervasive text in English was once the BIBLE, but is now the telephone book. Although spoken English has retained its diversity, printed English shows less variation. Notions of correctness, for centuries part of the study of Latin manuscripts, have been passed on in the vernacular legacy of print; such notions spill over from print into speech, so that ‘correct’ speech follows bookish patterns.