The Evolution of Printing

In the digital age, printing sometimes gets a raw deal. But without this medium being invented, the world would be vastly different – and worse off. Fewer people would be able to read. News of historic events may never have reached us or could have taken a lot longer to do so.

So how did printing begin and what have been the most important developments over 14 centuries? From woodblock to 3D, here’s how printing evolved.

Woodblock printing

This method originated in China during the Tang dynasty, around the year 600. This was a system that used wooden matrices, engraved, inked and pressed on to sheets of paper. The first commercially printed books were sold there in 762. In modern China, printing is considered one of Ancient China’s greatest discoveries.

Movable-type printing

Another Chinese invention, this time from around 1041. The printer Bi Sheng invented movable clay type. Unfortunately, it proved troublesome because it broke all too easily. It was improved upon around 1298 by inventor Wang Zhen, who began using stronger wooden type.

Gutenberg press

Johannes Gutenberg is one of the most important figures in printing. In the 15th century, this German inventor introduced print to Europe. He was the first person to use oil-based inks, which lasted longer than water-based ones. And his type was more robust as it was made from an alloy. But most importantly he began constructing the world’s first printing press, which was in use by 1450 but was first heard of in 1439.

Rotary press

In 1843 Richard March Hoe invented the rotary press in the US. It was hand-fed with single sheets but in 1863 William Bullock introduced a version that was fed by a paper roll. This mechanisation changed everything. Suddenly large print runs were possible.

Offset printing

Englishman Robert Barclay invented an offset press for printing on metal in 1875. But it was the American Ira Washington Rubel who adapted the technology to use on paper in 1904. Offset basically uses the repulsion between oil and water. It generates very sharp and clean images, but the machines are very large and expensive.

Linotype machine

In 1885 German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler developed the Linotype machine. So important was this to printing, it was dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. It worked in a similar way to a typewriter, adding more mechanisation and substantially speeding up the process.

Laser printer

We’re now in the present day with the most well-known method. It started in 1971 courtesy of the Xerox corporation. A laser transfers the image to a cylinder (or ‘drum’) and it’s then applied to paper using toner. It was another decade before Canon released a desktop version. And in the 90s they became ever cheaper and more compact and efficient.

3D printing

Although the digital world is now so prominent, 3D printing technology has garnered lots of interest in recent years. And yet it was first developed in 1984 by the American engineer Chuck Hull. Stereolithography allows solid objects to be created via UV light. Initially very expensive, it is now gaining ever wider use. Who knows what direction printing will go in next?

Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.