The Printing Press and Its History

A printing press is a device that applies pressure to a substrate such as cloth or paper as a means of evenly printing ink. The inked surface is made of movable type, a system that utilizes movable components to duplicate the elements, usually punctuation and letters, of a document and is pressed onto the substrate to transfer the text or image. The printing press was most frequently used to print texts and the creation and spread of which is recognized as one of the most influential events of the second millennium. The printing press revolutionized the way people described and conceived of the world in which they lived and ushered in the modern age.


The invention of the printing press occurred at a time in which the entrepreneurial spirit of Europe was favoring improvements to production. Economic thinking and improvements to the efficiency of traditional work processes led to a rise in literacy among Europe’s middle class resulting in an increased demand for books. Without the printing press this demand would be difficult to meet due to the time hand-copying would take. The invention of the improved form of mechanical type printing is accredited to Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. The exact date of the invention of this original press, referred to as the Gutenberg Press, is debated due to the existence of the screw press. Screw presses were a type of press invented in the first century C.E. by the Romans and worked by using a screw to rotate the drive wheel into a forceful downward movement. Gutenberg is also credited with inventing the hand mould, which made the production of movable type for use with his printing press much simpler and allowed for greater quantities of the movable type to be created.

Gutenberg Press

Johannes Gutenberg partnered with Andreas Dritzehn, a gem cutter, and Andreas Heilmann, a paper mill owner, around 1436 and began work on the printing press. There are however, no official records of the press prior to lawsuit records from 1439 that include testimony discussing Gutenberg’s types, metal inventory, and type molds.

Gutenberg had previously worked as a goldsmith. This professional knowledge of metals was beneficial to Gutenberg when inventing the press. He was the first to create type that used an alloy of tin, lead, and antimony. This was essential to the production of durable type that produced high quality book prints. Gutenberg created this lead type by utilizing his matrix that allowed for the precise and quick molding of type blocks. The type case contained an estimated 290 separate letter boxes. He is also given credit for the first oil based ink. This ink lasted longer than the water based inks that had been used previously. With his oil based ink he used both paper and a high quality parchment called vellum. In some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed using movable type in the West, colored headings were included.

Industrial Printing Press

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the printing press that was being used was still essentially the hand operated Gutenberg Press with a few new materials used in its construction. By 1800 a press was built by Lord Stanhope that was made completely of cast iron, reducing the force required for printing by 90% while doubling the size of the area being printed. The press could print 480 pages each hour, doubling the output of the Gutenberg Press. This however was still not efficient enough.

Two new ideas would radically alter the design of the printing press. These ideas were the replacing the printing flatbed with the rotary motion of cylinders and using steam power to run the press. These were both implemented by Friedrich Koenig in designs devised from 1802 to 1818. In 1810 a steam press had been designed by Koenig. This press was first produced in 1811 with the assistance of Andreas Friedrich Bauer. Two of Bauer and Koenig’s first models were sold to the British daily newspaper, The Times, in 1814. These presses were capable of producing 1,100 impressions each hour. The first edition of the newspaper using these presses was printed on November 28, 1814.

The early models of these presses were perfected later on, allowing printing on both sides of a paper at the same time. This innovation spurred the availability of newspapers to a wider audience of people, allowing for literacy to spread. In the 1820s this process was used to change the nature of book production by creating a more standardized production of titles.

In 1843 Richard M. Hoe invented a rotary printing press that was powered by steam. This press made it possible for millions of copies to be printed of a page in one day. The invention of this press prompted a flourish in printed works after the transition to rolled paper allowed for an uninterrupted feed of paper to the press, letting the prints be made at a much quicker pace. During the late 1930s and early 1940s presses were much more efficient and models such as the Platen Printing Press were able to perform up to 3,000 impressions each hour.

Application in the World Today

Today the printing press has evolved to be almost entirely digital. The digital press allows for digital based images to be printed directly onto the chosen media. The printing of large volume projects using the digital press however is per page more expensive than offset printing methods but the cost per page is usually outweighed by the cost of creating the printing plates needed for offset printing. Another advantage to digital press printing is the ability to print on demand allowing for a very short turnaround time. Offset printing is what is primarily used today as a common way of printing magazines, newspapers, brochures, books, and stationary.