The History of the Printing Press


Throughout the past 4000 years, record keeping has been an integral part of human civilization.
Record  keeping,  which  allows  humans  to  store  information  physically  for  later  thought,  has
advanced  with  technology.  Improvements  in  material  science  improved  the  writing  surface  of
records,  improvements  with  ink  increased  the  durability  of  records,  and  printing  technology
increased the speed of recording. One such printing technology is the printing press, an invention
that allowed mass production of text for the first time. The printing press has influenced human
communication, religion, and psychology in numerous ways.

The printing press was invented by  Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, born to a
wealthy merchant family in 1398 in the German city of Mainz. He studied at the University of
Erfurt in 1419. Later in his life, in 1448, using a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, he
began developing a moveable type printing press. By 1450, the Gutenberg printing press was in
full  operation  printing  German  poems.  With  the  financial  aid  of  Johann  Fust,  Gutenberg
published his 1282 page Bible with  42 lines per page. This bible, more commonly known as the
Gutenberg  Bible,  was  considered  the  first  mass-produced  book  in  history  because  180
 copies were printed. (―Gutenberg, Johann,‖ n.d., para. 1-4).

The  printing  press  was  first  brought  to  England  by  William  Caxton.  In  1469,  Caxton
learned  how  to  use  the  press  in  order  to  sell  books  to  the  English  nobility.
The  first  book  he printed, his own translation of the History of Troy, had great success and
enabled him to craft his own printing press in Michaelmas, England in 1476. The first piece
of English printing, A Letter of Indulgence  by John Sant, was printed with this press,
thus ushering in a new era for English literature.

Printing  technology  was  brought  to  America  almost  two  centuries  later.  British  settlers  often
established printing presses to provide spiritual texts for colonists; thus, it is no surprise that a
printing press was brought to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638. Printers often produced their
own paper using the same techniques that were used in England. In 1690, William Rittenhouse
(Rittenhausen),  a German printer who learned fine Dutch paper making practices, revolutionized
American  printing  when  he  established  the  first  American  paper  mill  in  Germantown,
Pennsylvania. Printers now had access to cheaper paper and had more time to work on their trade
(On printing in America, n.d., para. 3).

Even after the news of Gutenberg‘s invention spread to other European countries, people
did not adapt quickly to the new printing style. In the fifteenth century, literacy was confined to a
small elite group that was wealthier than others. With a small percentage of people who could
read, the demand for books was relatively small. The practice of hand-copying books, which was
done for centuries by monks and scalars, produced a very low output of expensive books  with
many mistakes. Still, the early printing press was slower and more expensive than hand-copying;
therefore, written word was preferred as a relatively cheap, portable, and rapid method of storing
and transmitting information (Volti, n.d., para. 1-6).

Basic Science and Technology
The printing press clearly relies on a medium that allows the printer to record using ink.
Dating back to 15,000 B.C.E., humans have recorded on surfaces such as cave walls, tree bark,
stone,  clay,  wood,  wax,  metal,  papyrus,  vellum,and parchment, and  paper. However,  printers
were constantly searching for new materials because many of these surfaces were not sufficient.
For example, cave paintings, in which pictures  were drawn on cave walls, were impossible to
transport and difficult to see without light. Papyrus (compressed sheets of Egyptian reed stalk),
as well as vellum and parchment (the prepared skin of cow, lamb, goat, and sheep), were high in
cost and deteriorated quickly. Clay, which dries fast, was difficult to use (―Paper,‖ n.d., para. 1).
At the end of the seventeenth century, it was necessary that printers begin exploring other
sources of paper because the worldwide production of paper lagged behind the capability of the
printing  press.  Previous  to  this  time,  the  methods  to  produce  pape were very similar  to the
methods  used  in  ancient  China  because  paper  producing  technology  was  adequate  for  the
demand. When the printing press became popular in colonial America, the mass production of
newspapers  led  to  paper  shortage.  In  order  to  remedy  this  problem,  linens  from  mummy
wrappings  were  imported  from  the  East.  Mummy wrappings and rags were  mixed and turned
into pulp to create mummy paper. On average, the linens from a single mummy could supply two
average seventeenth  century Americans for a year. Although this source nullified the scarcity of
paper,  it  had  non-ideal  qualities  such  as  brown discoloration, oils, and botanical  residue;  in
addition, this source angered archeologists and decreased in supply (Wolfe, 2004, paras. 1-3).
The most effective paper is made from pulped plant fiber. Originating from China in 105
A.D., plant fiber from the mulberry tree was used to make paper (―Paper,‖ n.d., para. 2). When
the process spread to Europe from the Arabs in the sixteenth  century, Europeans used the pulp of
cotton and linen rags because they were available in large quantities. Although these people used
different materials than the Chinese, the cloth was turned into a pulp and made into paper using a
method similar to the ancient Chinese method. Beginning in 1850, paper producers began to use
wood as the primary source of plant fiber because it was abundant. However, wood grinders at
the time were not effective enough to produce pulp: there were often solid chunks of wood which
led to low quality paper. On the other hand, the quality of wood pulp paper was still better than
the  quality  of  rag  pulp  paper.  As  grinding  machines  advanced,  the practice of manufacturing
wood pulp paper became more refined  and efficient.  In modern times,  most paper mills  grind
wood into pulp and then apply a chemical process that uses steam along with sodium hydroxide
(NaOH) and sodium sulfide (Na2SO3) to digest the wood chips to produce a finer pulp
 (―Paper,‖ n.d., para. 7).

As  the  population  became  more  literate  and  the  newspaper  became  more  popular  into
mid-eighteenth century, the demand for printed material skyrocketed. Printers could now make
more money by printing faster. Because the population was interested in current news, there was
a need  for printers to devise a technique to print the news faster. The first breakthrough came in
1812 when Friedrich Koenig and Friedrich Bauer invented the steam-powered press. This press
was  able  to  print  1,100  newspapers  per  hour,  approximately  four  times  the  speed  of
 manual presses.  The  greatest  printing  press  improvement  came  from  Richard  Hoe  in  1847
  when  he engineered a rotary printing press. Instead of laying movable type on a flat bed, the type
 was set onto the outside of a large cylinder. Paper was then placed on a flat bed. When the cylinder
 was rotated, paper would feed into the machine with high pressure between the flat bed and cylinder,
thus allowing contact for the ink to be imprinted onto the paper. This inventory further improved
the press, called the Hoe press or lightning press, by adding another cylinder. In addition, using
even more cylinders, Hoe devised a machine that could print of both sides of a continuous piece
of paper patented by France's Nicholas Louis Robert in 1798.

Language  is  another  important  consideration  to  printing.  Printers  who  used  moveable
type printing presses had to hand lay each letter that they wanted to print; thus, the printer needed
to cast each letter to be able to print. Moreover, the same letter was often used mu ltiple times for
each press indicating that it is necessary to cast many of the same letters. A language with more
letters,  such  as  Chinese,  requires  a  vaster  base set of letters compared  to a language  such  as
English. Movable type for languages that have fewer letters is easier to replace and manufacture.
In countries such as China, hand-copying was much more effective than the printing press until
the press became much more advanced (Printing, 2009, Original letterpress plates section, para. 3).

Impact of the Printing Press on History
The  printing  press  influenced  communication  in  numerous  ways.  Before  the  printing
press, explorers could only record manually. Because it was very expensive to have many books
copied,  maps  were  very  scarce;  therefore,  the  information  discovered by mapmakers was not
used often. When it became cheaper to print, explorers were able to share their information with
others, thus allowing increased education and easier navigation. The printing press also allowed
scientists of all fields to compare their findings with others. Scientific theories started to form on
a large scale because more supportive evidence  was accessible.  In mathematics, a  field which
relies heavily on uniform systems, mathematicians were able to build upon other works as they
became available. All people were able to educate themselves better with more accessible and
affordable text. Also, scientists were able to spend more time thinking about scientific concepts
and less time copying previous research. The printing press  clearly influenced  communication
(Volti, n.d., para. 1-3).

Religion was impacted by the printing press in several ways. As the amount of written
communication increased, ideas spread easily. Religious ideas were no exception. Martin Luther,
the leader of the protestant reformation, utilized print technology in order to spread his views.
The Christian church had no control over the spread of such religious ideas. To halt the spread of
these ideas, the Church would have to bring to a standstill the production of all printing presses.
However, this would mean halting the printing of the Bible, a message that the Church did not
want  to  send.  In  order  to  read  the  Bible,  many  people  became  literate.  It  is  evident  that  the
printing press affected religious movements (Volti, n.d., para. 7-9).

The printing press has influenced psychology in several major ways. Before the printing
press, people were apt to believe that the text they were reading was true because only the most
noteworthy information was recorded. Since the printing press became popular at the end of the
eighteenth  century,  everything  from  medical  textbooks  to  treaties  on  astrology  were  widely
distributed.  With  so  much  original  research  circulating,  it  is  no  surprise  that  much  of  it  was
contradictory.
People  became  less  willing  to  accept  the  judgment  of  a  single  individual  or  a group
of  individuals.  As  a  result,  a  more  critical  approach  to  understanding  emerged.  The
printing of newspapers also impacted the psychology of people worldwide. The farther away that
a reader was to a newspaper printing business, which were often located in cities, the more time
it would take to get a newspaper. When newspapers first came out, travel was relatively slow;
thus, it took even longer to get a newspaper. People lived closer to cities in order to improve their
access to newspapers. Thus, urbanization increased. In addition, a culture based on print media
was more individualistic than a culture based on collective means of communication. Because
the  printing  press  caused  a  movement  away  from  the  church,  people  had  less  collective
communication  and  more  individual  thought.  The  printing  press  brought  about  fundamental
change in the psychology of educated people (Volti, n.d., para. 4).

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