Writing has played a key part in the evolution of human civilisation for thousands of years. It has allowed us to record history, transmit information across vast distances, and break down barriers between different cultures. Printing was the next big leap after written language, prompting a previously impossible rise in literacy. It has had a remarkable impact on the world,
History of Printing
First developed in China around 200AD, this technique involves carving a design into a block of wood, the design is then inked and pressed into paper to print. This simple technology wouldn’t find widespread use in Europe for another 1200 years.
The next revolutionary invention in printing again came from China, in the Song Dynasty in 1041AD. Movable type allows for individual letters to be arranged, rather than having to write words out in full. These individual letter blocks were organised in clay or wooden tablets, and allowed for far faster printing than had ever been possible before.
The Gutenberg Printing Press
Some historians have argued the single most important invention of all time was the Gutenberg Printing Press, invented in 1440. The printing press took the concept of movable type and applied it to a machine that could be operated by hand.
The press rapidly increased the speed at which printed materials could be produced, which meant that printed texts became widely available and were no longer just restricted to the wealthy. Previously, almost all written texts had to be reproduced by hand, meaning books were very expensive, and since they were so rare, very few people could actually read.
As people of all classes learned to read, they gained access to knowledge they could never have acquired otherwise. Some of the nobility worried that the masses being able to read would spell disaster for their way of life.
The first book to be mass produced was the Gutenburg bible, prompting the church to argue that improved literacy would erode their power as people would no longer need to attend sermons to hear passages from the Bible.
The Rotary Press
Invented in 1843 in the US, the rotary press was a natural evolution from the Gutenburg printing press. It used cylinders which allowed for paper to be continually fed through the press.
Due to the mechanisation, and the introduction of continuous paper rolls, rotary printing presses could print up to 8,000 sheets an hour, making it the first press suitable for large print orders.
Developed over a hundred years ago, offset printing is still used today. Various improvements and iterations were made on the base model for many years after, making it an incredibly resilient and long-lived piece of technology.
It works by transferring ink from a plate to a rubber blanket and then to the printing surface, allowing for rapid printing at huge volumes. Many magazines are still printed this way today.
Another version of printing was laser printing. Invented in 1971 by the Xerox corporation, It utilises a laser beam which passes back and forth over a negatively charged cylinder inside the printer. It then collects electrically charged powdered ink, and transfers the image to the paper. With this system, it was suddenly possible to print around 20,000 lines a minute.
Of course, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1990s that laser printers became widely accessible to the public, as more people began to have home computers. The first home printers were large, bulky, and famously temperamental. Luckily, printers have since become cheaper, easier to use, and more efficient.
Lasers have also been pivotal in the invention of another type of printing: 3D printing.
We couldn’t talk about the history of printing without mentioning the biggest leap in technology since the printing press. 3D printing has revolutionised engineering, giving us the ability to create complex forms and structures from a simple design.
This printing technology was actually developed in the 1980s, when an American named Chuck Hull used UV rays to harden varnishes. This form of printing was coined “stereolithography”, a method that allowed solid objects to be created by adding overlapping layers of a photosensitive liquid polymer which has been struck by UV light, causing it to harden into a solid.
Initially the cost of 3D printing was very high. But now 3D printing is used in many fields, most commonly engineering.There are now many different technologies for 3D printing, and it can use materials that are melted by heat, liquid materials that are hardened, or materials that are laminated and bound together.
In the last thousand years, printing has changed the world several times over. 3D printing is the latest in a long line of developments, and there will doubtlessly be new and exciting ways to print in the future.
Read more about the evolution of 3D printing, or learn how Covid has altered our tech habits.