A True Revolutionary: How Printing Changed the World
There aren’t too many machines that have so fundamentally changed the path of human progress as the humble printing press.
Before Johann Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg Press in the 1430s, most of our history and literature was oral; passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Writing was the preserve of a privileged few: the majority of them monks working in the scriptoriums of ancient monasteries, painstakingly copying out biblical texts by hand.
If a family was lucky enough to own a book, most likely it would be a bible.
In his native Germany, Gutenberg had noticed how lucrative it was to create mass amounts of a cheap product. Printing predated Gutenberg, but existed only as a very basic and laborious process using hard-carved blocks of wood, hand-dipped in ink and stamped on paper.
Having worked in a Mint, Gutenberg spotted the potential to cut the printing blocks with a machine – making the printing process a whole lot faster and enabling him to print out high volumes of texts.
His “moveable type machine” used metal blocks that could be moved around to create new words and sentences – revolutionising the printer’s craft. An example of the product of his first press run – the Gutenberg Bible – would today sell for millions of pounds; the last one to reach the open market sold in 1978 for £2.2m.
Gutenberg’s invention changed the way information could be disseminated; putting the power of the mass media in the hands of the people for the first time. Once so carefully guarded by the church, the spread of ideas was now in the hands of anyone who could afford a press. These presses would play an important role in the spread of radical ideas that spawned revolutions around Europe and in the USA.
By the 19th Century, the manual processes were being further engineered out of the printing process. 360 years after Gutenberg invented the hand press, a new steam-powered double-cylinder printing press from Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer was used for the first time to print The Times in London in 1814.
In 1875, printing technology took another leap forward: Robert Barclay patented the first rotary offset lithographic printing press in England. This offset press revolutionised the printing industry and the technology is still used today to print newspapers, magazines and other high-volume print runs.
However, today, digital printing is changing the printing industry again. It has its roots in 1938, when Chester Carlson invented a dry printing process called electrophotography for Xerox, laying the foundations for the laser printers to come. Then, in the 1970s and 80s, with the advent of home computing, it was suddenly possible to print at home thanks to a new breed of dot matrix printers and, later, laserjet printers.
Meanwhile, another revolution was taking place in industry. Digital printers began replacing expensive offset presses. More suited to small print runs and the kind of customized printing that many organizations desire in order to create more personalized communications with their customers, digital printing is gaining ground. As it becomes a more cost-effective choice, it is even beginning to challenge traditional printing technology for larger runs.