In 21st century Britain, printing is as easy as a click of a mouse. We can see printing all around us, from the letters we receive and the books we read, to t-shirt designs and billboards. The production of mass printing facilities has come a long way over the centuries to provide us with the convenience of home printing today.
The first occurrence that could be called printing occurred in pre-historic Europe, where inks and dyes made from animal blood, sap and other natural materials were blown through animal bones to project images and shapes on cave walls.
The Middle East
Evidence of printing in this region of the world dates back as far as 3000BC, where impresses would be rolled over clay tablets to copy and duplicate images. Early ink in the Middle East was compressed and dried, allowing it to be stored far more easily than liquid ink. As writing by hand had to be carried out by a scribe, it was very expensive and only the very rich could afford this.
Rome’s large population resulted in a high demand for printed works, including great heroic tales. Books in Ancient Rome were simply ‘printed’ be vast numbers of slaves.
There have been discoveries from around 220BC of block printing in China for printing into textiles and paper. The earliest block prints found were of flowers on different coloured silk. Glue was used to attach a thin piece of paper to wood before being carved into the wood, creating an impression.
Ink would then be applied to print the image onto textile or paper. It was a major invention, but would take a long time, with no room for mistakes.
Developed around 1045-58, moveable type was developed in order to print paper money. Text and characters were reproduced through removable components in the press, arranged on a reusable iron plate. This proved to be a quicker and better printing method, and allowed for the development of the Gutenberg press 400 years later.
14th Century Europe
Evidence of block cutters and textile stampers has been found in from early medieval Europe. It was in the 14th century that woodblock printing arrived in Europe from China. Most images printed in Europe were printed on cloth for altars. The use of woodblock printing led to a new artistic style in Europe that used thin, simple lines.
The Gutenberg press
The year 1440 saw the invention of the Gutenberg press, which would be the catalyst for the Reformation and the transformation of Europe. The press rolled ink over raised surfaces of moveable letter blocks, held in a wooden frame. A piece of paper would be pressed against it. The press made the creation of metal moveable type possible in large quantities. It’s such an important invention due to the fact it could produce 3,500 pages of text every day, giving people unprecedented access to text and vastly increasing the literacy rate in Europe.