In our increasingly dependent age, older technologies are slowly but surely being phased out. We stand to forget their use, their evolution as well as their contribution to our own evolution as mankind. One such technology is the printing press. To move forward, we must pause to reflect on the past, appreciate it and ultimately learn from it. The printing press has evolved from a simple, rudimentary letter press in China to the revolutionary Gutenberg’s press that made the Bible the most published book of that time to the modern technology of offset lithography. It has played a fundamental role in the Renaissance and Protestant reformation that threatened the established order of Catholicism. Moreover, it was central to the dissemination of thought, literacy and the scientific revolution that slowly swept through Europe refuting long held false notions.There is no denying that the printing press in a small way has a place in the history of our species.
Books are fast being replaced by online copies and e-books. Bookshops are becoming thing of the past relics in this digital age. However, print will never truly die. It may lie comatose occasionally flinching spasmodically but it will never pass on. Print is integral to our lives and all credit of its importance goes to the printing press.
Printing presses come in a variety that use different technologies though offset lithography is the most commonly used method currently. The press could be configured to a sheet fed arrangement that prints individual sheets at a time or a web based approach where large reels of paper are fed to the press. Each offset press usually has a ‘tower’ for each color of ink though the main colors printed are black and the primary colors- yellow, cyan and magenta. Other colors can be obtained from mixing up the primary colors. A tower has three cylinders –the plate, impression and blanket cylinders. The blanket cylinder is between the plate and impression cylinders. The cylinders are rotated at the same velocity such that they contact one another.
The item to be printed referred to as the print in this paper is first formed on the plate cylinder then transferred to the blanket cylinder which is used to transfer the print onto the paper which lies on the impression cylinder. Each plate on the plate cylinder contains a polymer surface which is selectively removed depending on the print to be imparted using laser beams guided by a computer. A dampening solution is initially applied to the plate on the areas without the polymer surface. Ink is then applied to the plate on the portion with the polymer surface. Since ink and water do not mix, this ensures the ink only goes to the required areas. Ink is added during each revolution and the print is continuously imparted. A typical large sheet is approximately 700mm by 1000 mm and can contain about 8 pages. Presses have the ability to print both sides of the paper thus producing 16 pages of print. The paper is then rolled off using a system of grippers and rollers before being cut to size then bound. Plates on the paper cylinder are changed once a different print is needed and the process is repeated. Though lithography is the main method in use, other methods including gravure and flexography are also in use.
The printing press can trace its existence to the letterpress of China. Individual characters were carved onto a block of wood that served as the printing plate. The characters were then inked before paper was pressed onto the block of wood. This method was however time consuming and cumbersome due to the carving of the characters. This method was bettered by making of clay and wooden character slugs that were then assembled to form a printing plate. This saved on time but was still complicated.
The father of modern presses however is considered to be Johannes Gutenberg. Around 1452 he came up with the first movable presses. Characters were molded from cast iron then assembled into lines of type inside a frame. The concept was similar to that being used in wine presses of the time. The characters were then inked and a paper pressed on the sheet. This invention greatly increased literacy as books became more available its greatest success being the Gutenberg Bible. William Geld improved on this by making a duplicate of the printing plate thus preserving the original which was being worn out while printing. Originals were made of Plaster of Paris before being cast using metal.
Richard M Hoe developed the rotary press that unlike Gutenberg’s was made of a rotating drum that could print several pages instead of a flat plate that was only capable of one sheet at a time. This introduced the concept of cylinders. American Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1886 invented the linotype machine that automated the process of arranging characters. An operator could do this using a keyboard and the characters would then be cast using molten metal and the lines would be set. The characters could consequently be remolded and reused.This increased speeds of production and allowed fir changes in font sizes. It was god sent for newspapers. Joseph Niepce, a Frenchman, came up with photoengraving in 1826 by transferring etchings to a plate using light sensitive chemicals. The modern method of offset lithography where the oily nature of ink is used as it repels water was discovered by Ira W Rubel, an American, in 1903. Rubel accidentally noted that transferring the print to a secondary rubber surface before printing on paper was more effective. Combining flexible rubber plates and rotary presses, offset lithography was born. Phototypesetting was then introduced to replace cast metal. With the advent of the digital age, editing, page design, photography and the making of the plate layout can all be done I using computers.
Printing led to the Renaissance and the Protestant reformation after the invention of the Gutenberg press. (Eisenstein) Martin Luther was able to print and distribute theological ideas that were considered ‘radical’ and an affront to the Catholic Church that feared the spread of these ideas would lead to the dwindling of its influence. Luther also condemned church abuses masked under religion that had become more common. Priests were misappropriating funds for their own benefit and this led to the confiscation of church property as the protestant movement swept through Europe. “The printing press is God’s highest and ultimate gift of grace by which He would have His Gospel carried forward.” – Martin Luther.
Printing also led to the rise of modern scientific thought. Theories and hypotheses were printed and spread out for discussion. Inventions and theories could thus be improved upon leading to enlightenment since printing allowed for feedback. For example, in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, published his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun instead of the church propagated notion that the sun revolved around the earth. “Shifts in consciousness are attributable to the growing interiorization of the printed text as a model for intellectual activity”.
Literacy levels increased as it was no longer for apprentices to sit and listen to a ‘master’ of a particular craft or science to obtain education. Lower cadres of people including merchants could access information that had previously been a preserve of the elites. The people became more acutely aware of their rights as revolutionary ideas were easily spread through pamphlets. Every revolution since then has involved propaganda and dissemination of information through print.
The words of British philosopher Francis Bacon echo the role the printing press played –‘Printing, gunpowder, and the compass were the three inventions that have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.”
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