The history of printing

By 31/08/2015December 2nd, 2015Full Fat Blog

Printing, or the reproduction of print and images, has a long history. It’s all part of the human desire to share information, to learn and to inform. After all, without printing, the spoken word would only have taken civilisation so far, so what were the major steps in the history of printing that led us to where we are today?

Early days

More than 5,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians, of the ancient eastern Mediterranean civilisation, were using round cylinder seals to roll impressions onto clay tablets while early societies in China and Egypt were printing on cloth with small stamps.

Block printing

One of the earliest techniques for printing text, images and patterns was block printing. A wood block is carefully prepared in a relief pattern, so the areas which are to remain white are cut away. This enabled letters, and commonly used words, to be printed. Artists today still favour this technique for producing beautiful works of art.


Another technique used on cloth was stencilling. More than 35,000 years ago, early evidence of stencilling was found in cave art. Pigment was blown over a hand held against a wall to create a pattern. The method was often used on playing cards.

Movable print

Print really moved on a pace in the 1400s when Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable, interchangeable type. He and his staff generally printed around six pages of a book per day. He printed 180 copies of the bible, designed to be completed by colouring the large capitals by hand. Gutenberg had adapted screw mechanisms found in wine presses to develop the first printing press. For the first time, books could be mass produced at a fraction of the cost of older, time-consuming methods.

Seeing the emerging German printing industry, William Caxton, from Kent, brought knowledge of printing to Westminster, with his first edition in print being Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Mechanised presses

The first mechanised printing presses started to emerge in the 19th century and were four times faster than a handpress. The pace changed again when steam power was brought into the printing process before the cylinder press was invented. A cylinder press works though the method of pressing a paper through a flat surface and a cylinder, producing an impression on the paper. This method developed into the rotary press, which printed on paper passing through two cylinders. If you walked into a newspaper office from the 19th century, you’d be able to feel and hear the juddering of the printing presses.

Modern methods

Gutenberg’s printing process is incredibly slow and laborious compared to today. Then, compositors would be able to assemble 2,000 letters every hour. A computer can do the same in two seconds. More words are printed every second now than were printed in a year during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Even today then, in the digital age where information is available to use at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, there’s still a place for the tactile nature of print, for the newspaper, the book, the magazine, the business card or the letter.