The Evolution of Print
By Kelly Shank

Jan 12, 2021 ·   Marketing

Print has been an essential part of our development as a society and has been extremely important in spreading culture across the world. From its beginning with the creation of woodcut printing, to current digital printing processes, we have aimed to discover new and inventive ways to speed up the printing process.

Woodblock printing began in 200 AD. It’s known to be the first form of printing and was developed in China. It was achieved by carving a design into a wood block. Once the block was carved, it was dipped into ink and pressed onto paper or parchment.  It was revolutionary in that it allowed the quick, accurate reproduction of an image.  Yet interestingly, this process didn’t become popular in Europe for another thousand years!

Similar to the woodcut, the Movable Type technique was developed in China in 1041, and was used for printing script.  This technique allowed for individual letters to be configured in any order, whereas up to that point, lettering had to be written out in full.

It was another four hundred years before Johann Gutenberg would create the Printing Press. By 1450, Gutenberg had developed a printing machine that was perfected and ready to use commercially.  It was fittingly called The Gutenberg Press, and the very first book to be mass produced was ‘The Gutenberg Bible’ in 1455.  The printing press was an innovative method that built on earlier techniques such as movable type or woodcut, but consolidated them into one single device that could be operated by hand. This was the single most innovative invention to the evolution of print and is regarded as a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period of human history.

 In 1796, a German author and actor named Alois Senefelder developed Lithography as a cheap method to publish theatrical works.  The process was used to print text and artwork onto paper and other suitable materials.  Lithography originally used an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth limestone plate. In fact, the word "lithograph" historically means "an image from stone" or "printed from stone.” The stone was treated with a mixture of acid and gum (made from the sap of the acacia tree) etching the portions of the stone that were not protected by the grease-based image. When the stone was subsequently moistened, these etched areas retained water.  An oil-based ink could then be applied and would be repelled by the water, sticking only to the original drawing. The ink would finally be transferred to a blank sheet of paper, producing a printed page.   This traditional technique is still used today in the printing of some fine art applications.

 During this same period, William Nicholson filed the patent for a Rotary Press, in which images to be printed were curved around a cylinder.  It allowed for the printing on many substrates such as paper, cardboard and plastic.  These substrates could be sheet fed or fed on a continuous roll through the press, that can be further modified by varnishing, embossing or die cutting.  Printing presses that use continuous rolls are sometimes referred to as "web presses."

Offset Printing has been around since 1875, but has remained pretty much the same as today. It’s a common printing technique that works by transferring ink from a plate (“offset”) to a rubber blanket, and then to the final printing surface.  An advantage of offset printing includes the quick and easy production of printing plates that help produce consistent high quality images.  It’s also the cheapest method for producing high quality prints in commercial print quantities, which is why it’s used to produce large runs of magazines and other large format prints. 

 Digital Printing, developed in 1991, is the process of printing from a digital-based image (file) onto a variety of substrates.  Key benefits of digital printing are that it allows for on-demand printing with variable data, and a short turnaround time with the flexibility to modify each image as it’s printed.  The savings in labor along with the continued technological innovations digital printing is enjoying will inevitably allow it to reach a point where it can supersede offset printing’s ability to produce large runs at a low price. 

It’s clear printing has evolved greatly over the years, but more importantly, it’s laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and enabled the spread of learning to the masses.



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