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The Invention Of Printing

( Originally Published 1930 )



The art of printing with movable type was invented in Europe during the middle period of the fifteenth century. The Chinese had invented printing many years before this time, but instead of using single pieces of type, they cut all of the characters for an entire page on a block of wood and then applied the inked block to the paper. There is some doubt as to who was the actual inventor of the movable-type method of printing. Some authorities claim that Johannes Gutenberg of Germany was the real inventor of this system of printing which is the basis of our present-day method, while others maintain that Laurens Coster of Holland was the first one to use movable type. It is sufficient for us to know that this art was invented in Europe, and that it has been of great benefit to the people of the world ever since it was first put into use.

A brief account of the immediate steps leading to the development of printing with movable type may be of interest to those who are planning to become printers. The earliest books and records were chiseled on stone and other durable materials. When the Egyptians discovered how to make a form of paper from reeds that grew in the Nile River, it became a popular writing material. This paper or papyrus was made in the form of rolls, and the writing was only on one side of each roll. Papyrus was displaced by parchment made of sheepskin, however, because it was more durable and more convenient to handle. During all this time, books were written and copied by hand, which was a slow and laborious process. But, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when there was a great revival of learning in Europe, people began to search for a method of producing books quickly and cheaply. The church authorities first began to produce what were called image prints. These were pictures of saints or of religious happenings which were printed on sheets of paper and distributed among the people. The image prints were made from carvings on blocks of wood, which were inked and pressed firmly on the paper. Later on, a series of these prints was tied together to form a book of pictures. Then a line or two of reading matter was carved on the blocks together with the pictures. Finally, the pictures were eliminated, and entire pages of reading matter were carved on the blocks of wood from which impressions were made on paper or parchment. The books that were printed in this manner were called block books.

The next step was for some one to make separate letters which could be combined and recombined into words many times over. In the block-printing method this was not possible, and the carved block of type was valueless after the book was printed. The earliest users of movable type probably used letters made of wood; but when these proved unsatisfactory, they experimented with various materials until they discovered a metal which served the purpose. At first, they carved their type by hand, but later on they devised a method of molding it. With the invention of the type mold, printing was put on a practical basis, and it soon displaced handwriting as a method of preparing books and documents for general use.

Composition, which is the term used to describe the arranging of type into words, was done by hand until the closing years of the nineteenth century, when machines were invented which did away with this slow process to a great extent. Among these composing and type-casting machines are the linotype and the monotype. Before these machines were put into use, the printer set everything by hand, letter by letter. A skilled man could set about three thousand letters in an hour while standing before a "case" which contained these letters in a large number of small boxes. When the job of printing was finished, the type was distributed or placed back into the proper boxes. This was also a slow and expensive process. Today a good linotype operator can set ten thousand letters in an hour's work, and the process of distribution has been eliminated because the type set by this machine is simply melted and cast into new combinations. The invention of these machines and of the power presses has changed the printing industry so much that old-time printers would have difficulty in recognizing it. Furthermore, as a result of the changes that came about, due to the introduction of power machinery and the speeding-up of processes, it has been possible to produce books, newspapers, and magazines more cheaply and in greater quantities. This has led to a much wider spread of knowledge than was possible in the old days.

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