A Brief History Of Printing

From the invention of typesetting with moveable types by Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century, until the advent of the computer some five hundred years later, printing had been a highly skilled but labour intensive process.

The John Jarrold Printing Museum is a window on the many hours and variety of skills that were involved in printing before they were made obsolete by advancing technology.

Less than 600 years ago, there were no printed books. Knowledge was passed on through the generations by word of mouth, by drawings and later by the written word.

One book would take a scribe, using a quill pen, as much as a year to complete. When finished, the one copy would end up in the library of the King, or of the University, or in the hands of one of the King’s noblemen.

After many centuries the work of the scribes was threatened by the invention of moveable type by Gutenberg.

The first book to be printed from moveable type was Gutenberg’s Bible. It contained around five million characters, each of which had to be cast in metal, picked up by hand, assembled into lines and made up into pages for printing. This enormous task took some 5000 hours.

When printing was completed, elaborate hand decoration of stunning beauty was added to the printed page by the scribes.

When William Caxton visited Cologne to see the new invention of moveable type, he could have had little idea of what the future held for what has since been heralded as one of man’s greatest inventions.

On his return to England, Caxton set up his press at the sign of the Red Pale in Westminster.

Here he is showing King Edward IV and the Royal family, in the Almonry at Westminster in 1477, a specimen of the new printing from a wooden hand press.

The picture, is from a steel plate engraving by Frederick Fromley.

Hand typesetting, and correcting by hand, remained an elaborate and time consuming process. Not only was every word laboriously set from individual types, but, after use, each metal letter had all to be put back into its proper place in a type case ready for further use. This was a tedious task, known as ‘distribution’, which took up many hours of a compositor’s time.

For four hundred years the craft of printing from moveable type, set by hand, remained largely unchanged and unchallenged.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, methods of setting type by machine appeared, but had little success. A more satisfactory solution appeared later in the century with the invention of two mechanical typesetting machines which came into general use – the Linotype invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler (1886), setting complete lines of type in one piece of metal, and the Monotype invented by Talbot Lanston (1887), comprising separate keyboard and caster, used to set and cast individual types.

The output of the Linotype was easier to handle and quicker to make-up into pages.

The Monotype could recast without the need for rekeying the copy.

Both these systems greatly increased the output of typesetting.

Mechanical typesetting removed much of the time-consuming work of setting type by hand. However, it did not offer a substitute for the skills of the craftsmen in making corrections by hand, making-up the type into pages, placing hand-cut wood or metal engravings accurately within the type area, and imposing the pages for the printing press.

Pages of metal types were placed together, usually in multiples of 4 pages, and fastened into a metal frame, called a ‘chase’, to make what was called a ‘forme’. This had to be carried to and placed on the printing press. As one page could weigh 4 or 5 kilograms, a forme of 16 pages could be extremely heavy!

The invention of photography in the early nineteenth century was followed by the development of new methods for the production of film images, of copper halftones and line engravings. All involved time-consuming and skilled procedures. The copper halftone plates which can be seen in the museum are a salutary reminder of the change in time scale that has occurred between the old craft methods of working and the development of the computer.

The process of making halftone plates and electrotypes for letterpress was labour intensive and time consuming. The quality of the final printed copy depended largely on the application of make-ready. This could take as long as 10 hours per colour before a section of four-colour catalogue was ready for the final print run.

The problems of colour reproduction for lithography were many and complex. Hours of work by craftsmen skilled in colour correction were required to overcome the deficiencies of the available colour filters and printing inks in order to reproduce colour to a high degree of accuracy.

Film made from transparencies could involve some 20 hours of colour correction per subject before being acceptable for the printing process.

The appearance of the Macintosh computer in 1986 heralded a revolution in the time scales the industry had been familiar with for more than five hundred years. All the time-consuming processes associated with working with metal types and plates, so vividly illustrated in the craft skills practised in the museum, were eliminated. Machines like the one illustrated had memories as little as 128 kilobytes. Within a matter of a few years memories became tens of thousands of times greater. This led to the complete digitisation of the printing industry over a short number of years.

Now there is every possibility that we will lose our understanding of what things were like in the past and how they were done before the present age.

As a museum our most important objective must be to keep alive the heritage of the past in order to better understand the developments of the future.

Present-day computers owe much to letterpress printing and measurements such as ‘picas’ or ’ems’ were originally the basic measurements used by printers (a pica being roughly one sixth of an inch). Also the word ‘font’ (or ‘fount’) derives from the assortment of printing types all of the same size and design: and many names of the type faces used on computers are those of earlier metal fonts, such as Univers, Times Roman, Garamond and Perpetua.