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The Printing Press

Page history last edited by kelsey.mangold@iwc.edu 11 years, 4 months ago


The Invention of the Printing Press

     The Printing Press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz Germany around 1440. Gutenberg had trained as a goldsmith so he knew the techniques of fine metalworking. The press was the first to use adjustable molds for producing prints. The press made producing books quicker and cheaper than hand copying by clerks and it made the mass production of smaller writings such as pamphlets and posters possible.[3]


     Gutenberg used a “gothic” writing style for his molds. He used 290 different characters for his molds. His molds included capital and lower case letters, numbers, spaces, and punctuations. “A letter was first cut and filed in reverse from, in the end of a steal punch. Once the letter was checked and approved the steal was hardened, and then the cut letter was driven into a soft copper bar to make a positive. The copper impression was fitted into the adjustable mold, which for a given font had a constant height but a variable width, so that narrow letters such as f, i, j, l, r, and t could be cast as narrow pieces of type; wider letters –m and w, for example- could be cast correspondingly wider. The adjustable mold thus enabled Gutenberg to set letters in lines of readable words.”[3]


The Early Printing Press and Printing Shops




      The first printing presses were used to print mainly religious works. The Gutenberg Bible and Malleus Malificarum were some of the most popular religious works done with the press. Malleus Malificarum was a witch-hunting manual. The press helped stimulate the Reformation and the great European witch hunt.[1]


     The growth of trade and the church helped with the printing business. With the growth of trade in the 12th century it was better for shopkeepers, merchants, bankers, and master artisans to be literate so people started buying books and pamphlet to read. The church encouraged clerical education.[2]


     By the beginning of the 16th century there were over 250 towns and cities, mainly cities with ports on rivers or the sea, across Europe that had print shops.[2] Over 6,000 books had been printed in different European languages. Some of the languages were Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.[3]


     Being able to mass produce prints the authors were able to communicate their data the way they wanted it to be. This was helpful for authors of mathematics, engineering, medical, cartographic, and astronomical information. These finding could then be distributed throughout great distances which stimulated trade, production, and intellectual activities.[1]


     Starting up a print shop was fairly expensive because the press was expensive but it was worth it because the presses lasted for a long time and hardly ever broke down. If the press did breakdown it was normally an inexpensive repair. The paper needed for the presses were expensive and if it was a book there were the added costs of wood, leather, or cloth for the binding.[1]




     Print shops had master printers; they were in charge of the shop. They did the proofreading and editing before any print was ever made. There was only one master printer in a shop and they normally owned the shop. In the shop one person placed the metal type for each page, another prepared the paper and blotted the ink onto the pages, and some operated the press. After the pages were printed they had to be dried, collated and bound before they could be sent out for distribution.[1]


     Running a print shop was a highly complex technical and business operation.[1] The shops used apprentices and had long-term training of journeyman artisans because they needed the training to learn how to run the shop correctly. The master printer worked with the authors and with everything they printed they were also at financial risk.  If the books didn’t sell the printers didn’t get paid. Some of the print runs they did were over 1000 copies of a book at a time.[1]


Impacts of the Printing Press on Social Revolutions

     During the Renaissance the printing press was used mainly for religious prints. Vernacular Bibles were one of the popular things being printed. Pamphlets that taught about litanies and the commandments were also popular during the Renaissance.[2] During this time scientific works were being able to be printed with illustrations and tables more correct and similar than ever before.[1]


     The Reformation caused the spread of printing in the vernacular instead of printing mainly in Latin. Pirating became a problem during this time as well. Kings in this era granted monopolies to the printers and publishers that licensed them and then they could register their book’s title. This was the start of copyrights.[2] During this time period the Protestants started to split into different groups which led to Pilgrims and Puritans to flee the country to America, started up the American Colonies.[1]


The printing press was a reason that the Protestant Reformation was successful. It was so rapidly spread by print. Protestant printers and publishers worked together to spread religious propaganda. The propaganda campaigns were used to spread practice of reading and religious study to promote literacy in Europe. It also greatly increased prints’ influence on Eastern and Western Europeans.[2]


     The Catholic Reformation was to counter the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Reformation used the press to spread devotionals, school books for seminaries, pamphlets of popular sermons, and classified sins with the punishment for those sins.[2]


     Economic growth in the 18th century was attributed to the printing press. Printers started producing more expensive books for the booksellers to sell to elite readers. For the middle and lower classes they produced and sold cheaper books and ephemera. This time era was known as the Age of Enlightenment. During this time pirating books from different countries weren’t illegal so printers flooded the borders and sold pirated editions of books from their neighboring country. This type of piracy increased competition between printers and lowered book prices.[2]


     At the end of the 18th century printers and published had a lot of impact on the social and political revolution. Some of the books that were printed were Common Sense by Thomas Paine in the American colonies and What is the Third Estate? in France by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieye. As part of the French Revolution during the Industrial Age privileges that restricted the printing trade were destroyed and this made the number of printers in Paris increase greatly. [2]


     During the Industrial Age some changes to the press started to occur that helped lower the cost of books and sped up the process of printing. More durable iron presses replaced the presses made from wood in the late 18th century. Printers started using rollers and cylinders to ink the presses instead of blotting it by hand, people figured out how to make paper more rapidly, and the invention of mechanical printing presses were all elements to help speed up production.[2] Before these changes only little changes had occurred in the press. Some of the changes included changing the font to a more easily read font like roman or italic and replacing the cumbersome corkscrew with a sprung lever.[3]



[1] “PRINTING PRESS.” Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2005. Credo Reference. 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2012 http://credoreference.com/entry/sharpewt/printing_press.


[2] Cragin, Thomas. “Printing and Publishing.” Encyclopedia of European Social Hisory. Ed. Peter N. Stearns. Vol. 5: Culture & Popular Culture/Modern Recreation & Leisure/Religion/Education & Literacy/Everyday Life. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s           Sons, 2001. 377-389. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Dec. 2012


[3] Kirklin, Dan. “Printing Indusry.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanely I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 466-470. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Dec. 2012





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