Considered one of the most important inventions in history, the printing press has made it possible for information to be reproduced in massive numbers and passed down through generations. Printed materials such as books, newspapers, and posters have played a crucial role in the cultivation of knowledge amongst the people of the world. From the refinement of paper, ink, and block printing in China, to Gutenberg’s mechanical movable type, to modern digital technologies, printing has been instrumental in bringing about most major shifts in science, religion, and politics commonly associated with our modern culture. The following are some of the key technological and cultural milestones in the history of print:

Seals: The first prints

The first “prints” started with the use of seals. Seals originated within the earliest civilizations of human kind, as they noticed how animals and objects left impressions on soil. Early seals were stamped into wax or clay, creating an impression, which served as a way to verify the authenticity of a source. It is believed that seal technology penetrated China via Alexander the Great’s (356-323 BC) extensive empire, and it was here (China) where seal impressions later transitioned to printing in ink from carved wooden blocks.

The Development of Paper

The initial development of the printing press started in China with the invention and refinement of paper during several centuries. To substitute for expensive silk or the cumbersome bark and bamboo strips used at the time, the Chinese developed “rag” paper around A.D. 105. Rag paper was a cheap cloth-scrap and plant-fiber substitute that made ink printing more economical and thus more available. Eventually, in the eighth century, Chinese prisoners passed this method of creating paper to their Arab captors, and by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the secrets of this craft had made their way into Europe.

Block Printing

Block printing was first used for printing text, images, or patterns on textiles. The earliest woodblock prints are from China and consist of printed flowers on silk. They are generally assigned to the Han Dynasty before 220 AD. Their technology of printing on cloth was eventually adapted to paper. The oldest complete woodblock printed book in existence is the Diamond Sutra dating to the year 868 AD. Together with the development of paper, Chinese innovations in ink, block printing, and movable type were all critical towards the development more modern printing methods in Europe.

Gutenberg and Printing in Europe

In the early 1450’s rapid cultural change in Europe created the need for fast and cheap reproduction of written documents. Scribal monks sanctioned by the Church had overseen the hand copying of sacred texts for centuries, when the secular world began demanding this type of work for trade reasons, the scribal copyist profession was taken mostly by these same monks and new writing shops started to spring in Europe.

Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the town of Mainz in Germany, foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing press that could address this demand for document reproductions efficiently and consistently. Having worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman and set himself to develop a printing press that used movable metal type. His most significant innovation was the molding and casting of metal type, in which impressions of letters were filled with a molten alloy of lead, antimony, and bismuth (printer’s metal,) resulting in a very durable reverse image of the letter which was used as a stamp. The durability of this metal, the uniformity and quality of the lettering it produced, and its relatively low production cost established the superiority of Gutenberg’s methods, leading to printing presses and consequently printing houses to rapidly spread across Europe and the world. Today, Gutenberg’s printing press is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.

19th Century Innovations

Gutenberg’s print technology did not experience any dramatic changes until the 19th century when the development of steam-powered presses and the use of continuous paper rolls boosted the efficiency of printing. These advances made possible for newspapers to lower their prices dramatically, starting with the New York Sun newspaper famously dropping its price to a penny a copy in 1833. Some historians often regard this “penny press” as the first true mass medium, as it made the daily news available at a price within the means of the general public. Through the second half of the 19th century, technological innovations like the rotary printing press and offset printing marked a very significant leap in production speed and are still being used today.

Modern Printing

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century dramatic developments such as Xerographic photocopying, dot matrix “impact” printing, and thermal printing, paved the way for more sophisticated printing technologies such as inkjet, dye-sublimation, and laser printing. Today ongoing developments in technology including 3D printing keep adding to the possibilities of what can be achieved. Even though it is easy to take for granted the social and cultural impact of printing in our lives, we must remember that since its early beginnings printing has made it possible for information to be shared and passed down through generations, leading to major advances in science, medicine, human rights, communications, and the cultivation and preservation of knowledge amongst the people of the world.