Printing: History And Development Essay, Research Paper
Printing: History and Development
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the
printing press is widely thought of as the origin of mass communication–
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
closer look at the history of print, however, shows that the invention of
the printing press depended on a confluence of both cultural and technological
forces that had been unfolding for several centuries. Print culture and
technology also needed to go through centuries of change after Gutenberg’s
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
that print was the single cause of the massive social, political and psychological
changes it is associated with. However, print did wield enormous influence
on every aspect of European culture. Some historians suggest that print
was instrumental in bringing about all the major shifts in science, religion,
politics and the modes of thought that are commonly associated with modern
The key technological, cultural and psychological issues associated with
the emergence of the printing press can be organized into the following
China: The Technological Roots
migration to Europe
Gutenberg and the Historical Moment in Western
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
The invention of the printing press depended on the invention and refinement
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
in southern Germany, borrowed money to develop a technology that could
address this serious economic bottleneck. From its European debut in the
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
while literacy expanded; the two processes accelerated, in part, by stimulating
each other. The need for documentation continued to increase with expansions
in trade and in governmental scope and complexity. Scribal monks sanctioned
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
scribes simply could not keep up with the commercial demand for books.
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:
textile, papermaking and wine presses. Perhaps his most significant innovation,
however, was the efficient molding and casting of movable metal type.
Each letter was carved into the end of a steel punch which was then hammered
into a copper blank. The copper impression was inserted into a mold and
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
page. Gutenberg designed a Latin print Bible which became his signature
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
were made public and his creditor won the rights to the proceeds from
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.
They prompted far-reaching discussions that became the foundation for
mounting opposition to the Church’s role as the sole custodian of spiritual
truth. Bibles printed in vernacular languages rather than Latin fueled
the Protestant Reformation based on the assertion that there was no need
for the Church to interpret scripture–an individual’s relationship with
God could be, at least in theory, direct and personal.
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
Canterbury Tales. Caxton was an enthusiastic editor and he determined
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
The scientific revolution that would later challenge the entrenched "truths"
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
priveleged with ambition and a hunger for education.
Print technology facilitated a communications revolution that reached
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
facilitates interpretation and reflection since memorization is no longer
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
in religious thought and scientific inquiry, print innovations helped
bring about sharp challenges to institutional control. Print facilitated
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
for the Europeans who were drawn to the American colonies. Stephen Daye,
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
and religious expression in the New World. Writers and printers like Benjamin
Franklin were heroes of the time. Print was at the heart of the dissemination
and defense of visionary ideas that shaped the American Revolution.
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.
These technological advances made it possible for newspaperman Benjamin
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
widely accessible. The process of setting type continued to go through
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
to the writing process. Computer printing has already moved through several
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
interaction and for individualized navigation through interactive documents.
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