History of Printing Part 2 – The Printing Press, Moveable Type & Engraving

06-05-2016 by

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Printing has played a major role in advancing the way people communicate with and describe their world and nothing has had more of an influence than the printing press, moveable type and engraving. In part 2 of our history of printing, we take a look at how the introduction of the printing press and moveable type in Europe changed the world.

The first moveable type printing technology was invented and developed in China by Bi Sheng from 1041 to 1048. This was a mixture of wooden and ceramic moveable type.

During 1377, Korean printers began to experiment with metal characters in order to make their moveable type pieces more durable.

Moveable type printing was widely used in Asia to print money and make distributing printed text easier and faster, but it is in Europe that moveable type and the printing press would have the biggest impact.

Asian moveable metal type

Asian moveable type

The Black Death had a huge impact on printing in Europe. The death of almost a third of the population meant that the price of books rose as many of the trained monks and scribes, who had copied the books by hand, had died and woodblock printing was too expensive and time consuming to mass produce books.

It was during this time that the trade routes between Europe and the Far East expanded and opened. More contact between Asia and Europe meant that the technological advancements made in the Orient could move more easily into Europe, including advances in printing.

But it was Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press that would have the most impact on printing and communication as we know it. Gutenberg combined oil-based ink (which was more durable and able to stick to his metal type better), rag paper, the squeeze press and metal type to create the first printing press in 1451.

Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg

The most famous of the books printed on this press are the Gutenberg Bibles which were highly detailed and beautifully designed copies of the bible. Gutenberg printed about 185 of these bibles to prove that his new printing press could mass produce books that were on par with the books produced by medieval monks.

Page from the Gutenberg Bible

Page from the Gutenberg Bible

With the success of his bibles, Gutenberg’s printing press took off in Europe and almost every major city in Europe had a printing press. Printing became faster, easier and cheaper and it was because of this that book publishers began moving away from printing mainly religious books.

Books on everything from grammar, etiquette and science started appearing as well. Aldus Manutius began to print smaller, cheaper and easier to carry “pocket books”. These books were translations of Greek classics, which spread the ideas of the Italian Renaissance even further.

Replica of Gutenberg's Printing press

Replica of Gutenberg's Printing press

With the moveable type revolution it became easier to add images to text as the letters could be fitted around a wooden block that had been carved with the image. However, wood was less durable than the metal letters used for printing and any images that had to be printed in large print runs would have to be carved again.

With the invention of intaglio printing, more commonly known as etching or engraving, printers were able to use the more durable metal plates to print highly detailed images. This made printing illustrated texts cheaper and easier.

However, engraved plates required a different kind of printing press to transfer an image to paper. This led to printers printing the images on separate sheets of paper and binding these “plates” into the book after it had been printed.

Engraved image

Engraved image

While it may seem impossible to us, with our ability to print anything we want at home with our printers and readily available printer ink and paper, the printing press had a huge impact on the modern world. Mass communication and spreading ideas to a larger portion of the population became easier and cheaper, standardised books meant a better educated and more literate population who had access to more accurate information.

As more and more books focussed on scientific communication, scientists were able to share their findings more easily with the wider scientific community. This also meant that other information could also be spread quickly, and the printing press can take some of the credit for Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolution.

Next week we’ll take a look at lithography and the introduction of chromolithography or colour printing.

Nic Venter

About the author

Nic Venter+

 is the founder and director of He started the business in 2009 with the idea to sell ink and toner cartridges online and to provide you with a quality product, value for money and convenience. He regularly blogs on about printing and technology. Part of his philosophy is having fun and making sure that he and his team think everything ink, so you don't have to.

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