The History of the Printing Press

The history of digital printing is one that potentially starts back in the 15th century, where Johannes Gutenberg developed the first mechanical printing press in 1457. Whereas before, books and scripts were all written by hand, this mechanical process began the age of mass production of books, which in turn helped normalise the English language and shape it to accommodate whole countries. Before this point, every village had potentially their own way of communicating with their own people but no way of understanding others from another village; thus the invention of the mechanical printing press changing this norm forever. It also reduced dramatically the time taken to produce books, and brought culture and literature to the masses. This was the dawn of the era of printing and paved way for other techniques to be used later on.

In the 1880s, Alois Senfelder, who wished to find an inexpensive and easy way of publishing his plays, developed and introduced lithography to the printing world. The process included making a photographic stencil by photographing a page containing text, pictures or both; which in turn could be laid on the plate and exposed to a bright light source. After developing, the exposed parts of the plate would attract the greasy ink applied to the stencil, and the unexposed parts of the plate would attract water. The “inky” image could then be transferred onto the paper. This process was most famously used in Toulouse Lautrec’s posters of attractions and restaurants of Paris – for example, the Moulin Rouge. Until the 1950s, the idea of having raised type, applying ink to it and then squashing it onto paper to form an image, became known as letterpress printing and was to be the most successful and common form of printing until after this time.

After the 1950s, other ways of printing began to make their way onto the market. Web offset, which is still used for newspapers and mass produced pieces of writing, transfers the image onto a moving web of paper. This is more time efficient and cheaper than the process of letterpress printing, and the fastest machines can print around 17,000 impressions per hour. Gravure printing is also used for mass production, but usually for very long print runs of colour magazines, or packaging – a little more intricate than web offset printing. The process includes the image being dipped into a large copper cylinder, in a series of holes called cells. The larger the cell, the more ink it contains, resulting in more ink being placed on the paper (resulting in a darker colour).

In the last 20 years, printing has taken a dramatic turn, with the dawn of digital photography and printing. In 1990 Heidelberg GmbH, the world’s largest printing press manufacturer announced a new development, the Heidelberg GTO DI. This press was the first to image plates on the press itself. The Quickmaster DI replaced the previous machine in 1995, where the press configuration allows for four printing plates to be imaged on the press itself – which takes about fifteen minutes. It is similar to the lithography printing, except is much more cost effective and reduces time radically. This new process was called Computer-to-Press.

Nowadays, print on demand services, computer-to-plate and other innovations in the printing have all emerged onto the market. There is even the debate on whether in the near future, there will be a printer-less world due to the new technology coming onto the market every year. However, the printing press has opened up new doors throughout history and paved the way for wide access to information and communication worldwide.

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