History of Printing

By Peter Mercer, Curator of History, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The history of printing is an important part of the general history of civilisation. Printing has been the principal vehicle for the conveying of ideas during the past 500 years.

The Press Room in 1902

To fully understand political, constitutional, eccleciastical and economic events, and sociological, philosophical and literary movements one must take into account the influence which the printing press has exerted on them.

As a business proposition the printing trade has its share in the economic development of all other branches of industry and commerce.

Printing and Publishing Landmarks

c 594 The Chinese began to practice printing from a negative relief. Their method of rubbing off impressions from a wood block spread along the caravan routes to the West. From China also came the invention of paper which was to provide the ideal surface for printing.

c 1400 The technique of printing with wooden blocks arrived in Europe from the Far East

c 1450 Johann Gutenberg adapted the screw printing press from the wine presses which had been used in the Rhine Valley since the days of the Roman Empire. He used a recently perfected oil-based ink and devised a mould of metal prism matrices, punch-stamped typeface moulds and invented a functional metal alloy to mould the type. The printed word enabled information and knowledge, which was previously restricted to ecclesiastical establishments, to be widely disseminated and the first mass media 'explosion' soon hit Europe. By 1500 more than 9 million printed books were in circulation.

What is perhaps Gutenberg's greatest claim to fame is the fact that, after an early experimental period of which nothing is known, he soon reached a state of technical efficiency not materially surpassed until the beginning of the 19th century. Punch cutting, matrix fitting, type casting, composing and printing remained, in principle, for more than three centuries as they were in Gutenberg's time. Improvements to the printing press were insignificant and until the end of the 18th century Gutenberg's original design was still much the same and regarded as the 'common' press.

c 1460 Printer's ink invented only fifteen years after the first use of oil paints for pictures. It had to be able to stick onto a metal surface and it was based on heat-bodied linseed oil, kept for a year to allow the mucilage to settle. Resin may then have been added. The black pigment would have made from the soot collected from burning pitch and then roasted it several times the get rid of the tarry oils. Many printers were still making their own ink as late as 1850.

1500s Printing provided the first mass medium vehicle for advertising and in the 1500s printed handbills began to replace the town criers.

1600s The screw press was improved for the first time since Gutenberg's day with the introduction of springs to aid the platen to lift rapidly. It was then able to print a maximum of 250 impressions an hour.

Newspapers began to appear. They developed from newsletters and printed pamphlets. The relationship between advertising and newspapers enabled both to flourish from the early 17th century. The printed medium changed advertising from announcements to persuasion.

1799 Printing by lithography was invented by an Austrian printer Alois Senefelder. He found that he could print from the flat, smooth, surface of fine-grained limestone.

The process works on the principle that oil and water do not mix. Waxed illustrations are transferred onto the stone block. When ink is added to the surface of the stone the wax areas retain it and it can be washed off elsewhere.

In the 19th century lithography became the preferred method for reproducing quality illustrations for books and magazines in both colour and monochrome.

Early this century it was found that the reproduction was even better if the ink was transferred to the paper via a rubber 'blanket' instead directly from the stone. This became called offsetting and, after further technical refinements, it is the principle that is used in the modern offset presses of today.

1803 Machine made paper begins to replace hand-made paper. The first practical paper machine was invented by Nicholas Louis Robert at the Essonnes Mill, France, but the patent was taken to England where the first efficient machines were set up. Paper was mainly produced from linen and cotton rags. Esparto grass was also used.

1804 The third Earl of Stanhope (1753-1816) replaced the wooden screw press, virtually unchanged since Gutenberg's time, with an iron framed lever press. The press used by Andrew Bent, now at the TMAG, to publish his Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen's Land Advertiser in the early 1820s is Stanhope's improved model of 1807.

1805 Lord Stanhope also introduced stereotyping, which made the saving of pages of type for reprinting a commercial proposition. Pages of type for future reprints were preserved using plaster or metal matrices from which a stereotype could be cast, instead of having to reset the text.

1814 Frederich Koenig's steam printing machine with rollers was adopted by The Times, London, in 1820, and raised the output of a printing press from 300 to 1100 copies an hour.

1822 The letter founding machine, invented by Dr William Church and a forerunner to the linotype machine, raised the number of letters that could be cast daily from 3 000 / 7 000 to 12 000 / 20 000.

1827 The New Press of Applegath and Cowper enabled The Times to produce 5 000 copies an hour from a single machine. Prior to this rows of Stanhope presses had been used.

1829 The stereotyping process improved. Clumsy plaster and metal matrices were replaced by papier mache ones, reducing labour, weight and bulk in storage.1831 - French engineer Gaveaux designed a two-cylinder version of the New Press which handled the paper better and further increased production.

1840 American Richard March Hoe developed a revolving perfecting press which could turn out 20 000 impressions an hour.

1840 The manufacture of paper from wood pulp was accomplished this year and within a decade production had spread everywhere. The outward appearance and 'feel' of paper was altered and it became much cheaper to produce, which was particularly advantageous to newspaper production.

The Mercury's old photo-engraving room

1846 Hoe developed the first version of a rotary press. He found a way to fit the type around the cylinder which was inked by automated rollers while four smaller rollers brought the sheets of paper in contact with it. This raised the number of impressions that could be taken from 22 000 to 24 000 an hour.

1853 Claude Genoux and Nicholas Serriere improved the system for making page moulds on papier mache flongs, as they came to be called. A flong prepared from flat type could be curved to permit moulding of the cylindrical type needed for a rotary press. Flongs were used until recent times when the introduction of offset presses and computer technology revolutionised the printing process.

1854 James Gordon Bennett in his New York Herald developed a method using a metal plate impression of the type rather than the type itself.

1859 Photo-lithography. A French lithographer, Firmin Gillot, developed a new method for etching metal plates. In 1872 his son invented zincography, which combined photography with etching so that the resulting picture could be sized up and down as required. But it was limited to uniform black on white. By 1880 a method of producing intermediate tones was devised by a system of dots of different sizes. By the end of the century photo-lithography had become a new branch of the journalistic profession. Photo-lithographic 'block' making in zinc was performed until photo-composition in the 1970s.

1863 William Bullock perfected a method of feeding paper into a machine continuously instead of by sheets. He also incorporated Bennett's metal plate system and the use of stereotypes, shaped to fit the rollers, instead of hand set set type, came into general use.

The Second Hoe Press 1923

1885 Linotype and Monotype machines were developed. Between 1815 and 1871 seventy attempts had been made to create a machine capable of setting type and adjusting the spacing of words. A machine that did this work, the Linotype was developed by Ottmar Mergenthaler in America who was inspired by a punch-cutting machine invented in Milwaukee, USA, by Linn Boyd Benton. Mergenthaler's invention had a keyboard which set not type but matrices of letters which formed the mould of a line. Molten lead alloy was used to set the line of type and the name 'linotype' evolved from this procedure. Afterwards the linotype slugs could be melted for re-use. The Monotype machine, invented about the same time by Tolbert Lanston, was similar to Mergenthaler's machine but it cast hot metal type letter by letter instead of by line.

Linotypes were a major advance and they also solved the problem of being able to automatically justify lines and mechanically distribute type. Before this development a proficient compositor could only set 40-50 lines of type an hour. As with all major technological advances, linotype machines met strong resistance in Britain from compositors who saw their introduction as a threat to their jobs. Linotypes came on the market in America in 1892 and a few years later in Britain.

1889 Hippolyte Marinoni at the Paris Exposition demonstrated a rotary press which turned a roll of paper back on its path, enabling successive sheets of large and small size to be printed on both sides and then cut and folded into piles of completed newspapers, the whole operation performed at great speed.

1890 By now there was a wide choice of fast rotary presses to choose from. Each had its own specialised technology. The great advances in newspaper production technology were over until the development of web offset printing and photo-composition in the 1970s.

1900-1970s Manufacturers added speed and quality to the production capacity of their presses. After 1900 electricity replaced steam and provided a new easily conducted energy, which enabled a variety of electrical devices and innovations to be installed.

Plates on the Scott press, 1954

The Job Printing Room 1920s

1920s Automatic devices were developed for making stereotypes.

Improved folding mechanisms for presses with stuffing devices for carrying extra supplements appeared.

1960s early- Web offset presses were used for the first time for small newspaper runs.



Picture Gallery of Printing Presses

Links to Print Museums Around the World

The Mercury's Printing Presses