A brief history of printing

When we think of the beginnings of printing we usually think of the Gutenberg press, an innovative printing process that used movable type. This 15th century invention ushered in a new age of cheap, mass printing that remained the standard until the 20th century.

However printing first came about long before Gutenberg. The invention of printing with wooden blocks was the achievement of Buddhists in Korea and Japan in the 8th century, and the earliest known printed book is Chinese – the 'Diamond Sutra', printed on a scroll consisting of sheets of paper glued together, dating to AD 868.

Printing from wooden blocks was a laborious and time-consuming process which was only improved upon with the invention of movable type in China in the 11th century. Movable type involved the creation of separate letters or characters which could then be arranged in the correct order for a text and later reused many times. But this technology was severely limited by various factors, not least that the characters were made from clay and the resulting ceramic objects were too fragile for their function.

Before printing began in Europe, movable type was first cast in bronze in Korea in the 13th century; this provided durable movable type made from metal rather than clay, that could be used repeatedly and for different texts. In a historical coincidence, in 1443 the Koreans invented their own national alphabet (replacing the unwieldy number of characters in the Chinese script) at the same time that Johannes Gutenberg was developing movable type thousands of miles away in Mainz, Germany.

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was made possible by his skills with metal (he was a goldsmith by profession), which allowed him to create individual pieces of type using his newly developed hand moulds and innovative metal alloy; and his advances with the press itself, in particular the application of a rapid and steady downward pressure.

Gutenberg's new printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe and huge numbers of books were printed in a short time; by 1500, printing presses operating throughout Western Europe had already produced more than 20 million volumes, and by the 16th century some 150-200 million books had been printed.

Gutenberg's press revolutionized not only the production of books but helped to stimulate the rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the diffusion of texts. The Printing Revolution is considered the most influential event in modern history, for its part in the transmission of learning from the Renaissance through to the scientific revolution of the 16th--17th centuries, and it laid the foundation for the widespread dissemination of learning that followed. The printing press was largely responsible for the 'democratization of knowledge' that allowed the spread of learning to the masses and gave rise to our modern knowledge-based economy. It is impossible to overstate the role of the printing press in the circulation of ideas and the free movement of learning and information between individuals and communities.

By the 19th century, innovations in printing technology had overtaken the Gutenberg press. Two main factors were responsible for these developments at the time of the Industrial Revolution: the use of steam power for running the printing press machinery, and the replacement of the printing flatbed with rotating cylinders around which the impressions are curved. The steam-powered rotary printing press, invented in the United States in 1843, enabled millions of copies of a page to be printed in a single day.

Up to the 20th century, the chief printing techniques were intaglio, lithography, offset and screenprinting. Offset printing – developed in the 1870s for printing on tin and in 1903 for printing on paper – uses an inked image that is transferred (or 'offset') from a plate to a rubber blanket and then to a printing surface. When used in combination with lithography, which uses a stone or metal plate with a completely smooth surface, the technique is called offset lithography and is used today for almost all smooth, mass-produced items with text and graphics.

Offset printing is the preferred technique for cost-effectively producing large quantities of high quality printed material as cheaply as possible and with low maintenance requirements. Some of its most common applications are the printing of newspapers, magazines, books and brochures. Today many offset presses use 'computer to plate' systems rather than the older 'computer to film' process, which further contributes to their high quality.

What is short run digital printing?

The most important development in printing technology in recent times has been digital printing, which allows for fast, efficient and cost effective printing without compromising the highest standards of quality.

Short run digital printing gives you the greatest degree of flexibility, personalised service and rapid turnaround. With traditional printing methods, an important factor was economies of scale – that is, the more units printed in one run, the cheaper the cost of each unit. By contrast, short run digital printing is cost effective for smaller quantities – for example from 100 to 1500 copies – as well as providing a much quicker and streamlined service.

Short run digital printing is ideal for items such as leaflets, brochures, letterheads and stationery, business cards and so on. It is the perfect printing solution for small businesses and individuals as well as for larger companies that have extensive and varied corporate print requirements. The flexibility of digital printing means that only the required number of copies need be printed at any one time, allowing you to produce updated or revised content as often as you wish. It even allows for variable data printing, involving modification of the image, with each impression.

The impact of digital printing

With the advent of digital printing in the 1990s, a completely new technology arose, which was distinct from the traditional methods in having no printing plates – this allowed for a much quicker and less expensive turnaround while maintaining a high quality in the finished product. Digital printing is the reproduction of digital images on a physical surface, such as paper, cloth, plastic, labels and so on, using inkjet or laser printers. Unlike conventional ink, the ink or toner does not absorb into the substrate (the printing surface) but forms a thin layer on the surface; in some cases this may be further adhered to the surface using additional processes.

With its many advantages over traditional methods, digital printing is now ubiquitous throughout the printing industry, with some of its chief applications being desktop publishing, self-publishing, print on demand, and the many categories of commercial printed material such as brochures, stationery, leaflets, flyers, etc. The ever-improving technology means that digital printing, which today is able to deliver superb quality prints at a low cost in a short time, will eventually overtake offset printing in producing larger print runs more cheaply.

Let CE Print help with all your printing needs

CE Print's digital printing press allows for any number of copies to be printed with high resolution photo quality within your chosen timeframe. Depending on the size of the job, we aim for a turnaround of 2 - 4 working days. Give us a call to discuss your print requirements – we look forward to helping you!