Printing History


Mans earliest known attempt at a visual record of his life and times dates back 30,000 years. Drawings, which were known as pictographs, were super seded by the more complex ideographs of later humans. As the years progressed, the ideographs were replaced by the Persians’ cuneiforms, and then by hieroglyphics which were perfected by the Egyptians around the year 2500 BC. Ten centuries later; the Phoenicians used the fi rst formal alphabet. These were all art forms and not printing, which is the reproduction of art forms in quantity.

The first forms of printing started with the printer carving out characters out of wood blocks to form printable "plate". The wood block was then inked and the sub strate pressed against the wood block. The only problem with this type of process was that the characters within the block could not be changed. After printing with the block, it had to be discarded. As the writings changed, so did the block.

Printing with movable type appeared in China and Korea in the 11th Century. In 1041, a Chinese named, Pi-Sheng, developed type characters from hardened clay but was not totally successful. In the middle 1200’s, type characters cast from metal (bronze) had been developed in Japan and China. The oldest known text printed from this type of metal type dates to the year 1397 AD.

Half a century later in 1440, probably unaware of the crude type developed in the Orient, Johannes Gutenberg introduced to the Western world his invention of print ing with ink on paper, using movable type mounted on a converted wine press. Until Gutenberg’s invention, all books were laboriously handwritten by scribes. Little wonder that historians credit his invention of printing as coinciding with the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance and Modem History.

Paper and printing ink were not new when Gutenberg’s cast moveable type appeared. A Chinese named, Ts’ai Lun, is credited with the invention of paper in 105 AD. By the time Gutenberg was born, paper making was a well-developed industry throughout the Western world with paper mills existing in Spain, France, Italy and Germany. The Chinese also led the world in making ink for printing. We credit the envisionment of commercial and cultural possibilities of printing as a process of graphic reproduction to Gutenberg.

While Gutenberg was successful in developing cast metal movable type, he is also known for printing the fi rst Bible and not hand scribing. Herr Gutenberg is little known, however, as one of the fi rst printers to go bankrupt. Johann Gutenberg was on the verge of completing his forty-two line bible when he was sued by Johann Fust for payment of loans to fi nance the project. Fust acquired all his equipment and the 210+ copies of the bible as Gutenberg could not repay. Fust began to sell the Bibles promptly. Gutenberg and Fust had tried to keep the process of print the Bibles (by movable type) a secret. In Paris, where he attempted to pass them off as hand copied manuscripts, it was noticed that the volumes had a certain conformity and witchcraft was charged. Fust had to confess his scheme to avoid prosecution, but in some circles the witchcraft charge stuck.

Early printing in England is interesting because it was through England that printing came to the American colonies. Printing was introduced in England about 1476 by William Caxton, who brought equipment from the Netherlands to establish a press at Westminster. Books printed by Caxton included Chaucers’s The Canterbury Tales, Fables of Aesop and many other poplar works.

Printing reached the America shores as it was used to promote colonization. The fi rst printing press made its appearance in Massachusetts in 1638, soon after the fi rst settlers were established. The fi rst piece printed on the new press was The Freemans Oath (around 1640). While printing thrived in the Northeastern part of the Ameri cas, it did not make headway in the southern colonies to the extent that it did in the Massachusetts colony. Within time, however, printing did forge its way south. By the year 1763, there was a press in operation in Geor gia, the last of the 13 colonies to be settled. Printing came to Ken tucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan in the 1780’s and 1790’s. By the early 1800’s, printing had moved west of the Mississippi to St. Louis. Thus, as migration continued west, printing followed.

One of America’s most famous printer, besides myself (sic), was Ben Franklin. As a boy he learned printing from his brother. In 1723 he quarreled with his brother and went to New York and then Phila delphia where he worked for a French printer named Keimer. By 1732, he had his own printing offi ce and became the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Among his publications, Poor Richard’s Almanac became the most famous.

Throughout his life, Franklin was active in promoting printing. Although he disposed of his business in Philadelphia in 1748 to devote his time to literary, journalistic and civic activities, he assisted in the establishment and promotion of about 40 printing plants in the colonies. The high regard for his craft is revealed by the words with which he began his will: "I Benjamin Franklin, Printer..."

Another great patriot printer was Isaiah Thomas, born in Massachusetts in 1744. By 1770 he was printing publication entitled Massachusetts Spy, a newspaper in which he supported the cause of the patriots. He served during the Revolutionary War as a printer for the Massachusetts House of Assembly. Following the war, he reestablished his business, which had been destroyed. He became a leading publisher of books in the period following the Revolution. In 1810 he published a two-volume History of Printing in America which, even today, remains the best source on colonial printing.