History of Printing

The key figure in the history of printing is Johann Gutenberg (1400? - 1468) of Mainz, Germany. He was a silversmith by profession. GutenbergAround 1430-40 he invented movable, interchangeable, re-usable type, for printing on a wooden press (adopted from wine or cheese using a printing ink of a composition invented by him. It was an oily, varnish-like ink made of soot, turpentine, and walnut oil.

His business was backed by a man called Fust (or Faust) and he had an assistant Peter Schöffer - the print shop probably had around 25 staff and aimed to print around six pages of a book per day. His masterpiece is the Bible printed in 1453-4 , 180 copies were made, each of 1282 pages with 42 lines in two columns. They were designed to be completed by colouring main capitals etc by hand. 48 copies are known to exist now ( a very fine copy is held in the John Rylands Library in Manchester).

Gutenberg’s actual technique of making movable type remains unclear; he was familiar with the craft of casting metal from a reverse impression. He may have made castings from sand or plaster, but we probably shall never know for certain. However we know that a few years after his death the process used involved the production of a metal punch, the end of which would have been cut to produce a reverse impression of the type.

During the seventeenth century The Netherlands became the centre of book printing for most of Europe; the foremost printer was Christophe Plantin who by 1576 was running twenty-two presses. The Plantin Press in Antwerp servives as a museum and their website is most fascinating (click Plantin ).

Developments in Britain

William Caxton was born in Kent (1415/1424). In 1446, he went to live in Bruges where, where during a visit to Cologne he saw the emerging German printing industry. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473. Bringing his knowledge of printing back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476. The first book known to have been issued there was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical - authored works and English and Roman histories. These books strongly appealed to English upper classes around the end of the fifteenth century. He died in 1492.

Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (by homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This was said to have led to the expansion of English vocabulary and the development of inflection and syntax.

William Caslon (1692–1766) was an English gunsmith and designer of typefaces. He was born in Worcestershire and in 1716 started business in London as an engraver of gun locks and barrels, and as a bookbinder's tool cutter. Having contact with printers, he was induced to fit up a type foundry. The distinction and legibility of his type secured him the patronage of the leading printers of the day.

Caslon typefaces were immediately popular and used for many important printed works, including the first printed version of the United States Declaration of Independence. Caslon's types became so popular that the expression about typeface choice, "when in doubt, use Caslon," came about. The Caslon types fell out of favour in the century after his death, but were subsequently revived and are widely used today.

John Baskerville (1706 - 1775) was an English businessman in several areas including paper making but he is best remembered as a printer and typographer. He worked in Birmingham and printed works for the University of Cambridge.
His typefaces were greatly admired but subsequently lost their appeal; however they were successfully revived in the twentieth century.

Baskerville also was responsible for significant innovations in printing, paper and ink production. He developed a technique which produced a smoother whiter paper which showcased his strong black type. Baskerville also pioneered a completely new style of typography adding wide margins and leading between each line.

Augustus Applegath was born in 1788 and died in February 1871. He lived in the Dartford district and established a silk and calico printing works in the town in 1843. Applegath was a successful inventor,with eighteen different patents in his own name for improvements in letterpress and silk printing. He perfected an amazing new technique for printing banknotes which was tried but not adopted by the Bank of England. He invented the vertical press and the machine upon which "The Times" newspaper was printed in the mid-19th century.

Victorian World of Printing. The Victorian period was a time of enormous change in the world of printing, especially with the development of the steam presses for printing large numbers of pages. Lithography was also subject to great improvements; powered litho machines were introduced and metal plates began to replace the original limestone slabs. Another development of great importance was the introduction of Chromolithography, with multiple litho plates being used to produce multi-coloured impressions. A fascinating article on The Victorian World of Printing  can be read by clicking Victorian Printing.

Eric GillEric Gill (1882 – 1940) was an English artist, sculptor , typeface designer, stonecutter, printer and printmaker, who was associated with the 'Arts and Crafts' movement. Even today he is a controversial figure, with his well-known deeply religious views and subject matter being seen at odds with his sexual behaviour and erotic art.

His typeface Gill Sans was immensely popular and had a strong influence on typography during the mid - twentieth century, and will be seen as his lasting memorial. His typeface Perpetua has a firm niche, especially amongst small printers and in its use in hand - produced books. Joanna is another interesting face from Gill, which however never achieved great popularity.

The Future of Printing?

Digital printing is now gaining acceptance as a viable alternative to litho printing, which itself came to prominence only 50 years ago, at the expense of letterpress, which had a dominance for 500 years. Which form of digital will dominate in future is a little more difficult to predict. From Electro-ink, toner or inkjet, there are varied reasons to support either of them as the preferred choice, depending on the application. Electro-ink is a rather special substance as it comprises magnetic ink, combined with a fusing oil. This allows the printing image to be changed for every sheet of paper that passes through the machine. The use of the fusing oil does pose problems which will need to be dealt with, when any finishing is required.

Just recently it seems that toner and inkjet are attempting to become the replacement for litho. Quality of the finished image will be the basis for making any comparison and both are claiming to have reached this milestone in the last couple of years. The original inkjets would have a small print head with a small number of nozzles which would move across the paper, building up the image line by line. Later developments saw the print heads become larger with many nozzles and enough to stretch across the width of the paper passing underneath, which removed the need for a transport system for the heads. The paper used for these technologies has its own requirements, in that very often it will need to be treated in order to receive the ink.

The toner method also prints across the width of the paper, with either laser or LED method of charging the paper for the transfer of toner. Again speed is the main concern. The latest machines have reached 6000 A4 sheets per hour, on a variety of surfaces. The toner particles are becoming smaller and some are even grown, so they can be very small indeed. This gives the ability to produce very fine detail. The paper also needs to be able to withstand the fusing temperature.

Following on from the printing, comes the binding and this raises its own problems. Printers now need to ensure that they do not place any machine seal in the area which will be used by the binder, when they apply the hot melt glue. This will then allow the glue to adhere directly to the paper. While toner uses heat to fuse the toner to the paper, it still just sits on the surface. Subsequent operations need to take these problems into account as almost any folding or creasing will cause the toner to flak off or crack. Equipment manufacturers have produced many new machines which now allow any operation to be carried out without damage to the image. Improvements in the materials used to make the scoring disk, or creasing bar, have generally removed metal from the equation. This means the fibres in the paper are persuaded to adopt the shape, rather than using brute force to force the fibres into shape.


In the last few years equipment has become available which will not only print a complete book but bind it too; this is referred to as a "print on demand" service. Firms accept a file of text matter, typed directly into a computer by the author, and arrange to set it, print and bind a few copies as required. This can then be sold by Amazon or others and new copies produced on request. This kind of publishing may revolutionise publishing and may make the concept of an out of print book obsolete.

During the last few years, many books have been published as a computer file - these are known as ebooks. Sony and Amazon and other companies have produced portable readers for ebooks and it is not impossible that in the future ebooks will gradually replace printed books as the preferred publishing route.

John Easson's History of Printing