The Complete Printing Timeline: How Printing Has Evolved
Interested in printing? Click here for a complete printing timeline that’ll teach you more about how printing has evolved over the last several hundred years.
Long before social media, people expressed themselves with words and pictures. Scratching symbols in dirt evolved into messages sent around the world in seconds.
The history of printing includes many different processes used to share information. Thanks to a long tradition of printing we know details on early civilization. Printing also means there’s a written record of the progress.
Keep reading for a printing timeline up to today’s cutting-edge digital printing.
The Beginning of Printing
Back in the day – 3000 BC and earlier – people in China and Egypt used stamps to print on cloth. The Mesopotamians created images on clay using round cylinders.
People wrote messages on clay tablets and cloth until the invention of paper. Ts’ai Lun of China invented paper in the second century AD.
In 1104, a book written in Latin and filled with the Gospel of John was recovered from Saint Cuthbert’s grave. It was from the seventh century in Durham Cathedral, Britain. The book is the Cuthbert Gospel. It’s thought to be the oldest existing European book.
In the eleventh century, Pi-Sheng created movable type from hardened clay. It was the first movable type. Although hardened, clay was too soft for the method to work well.
A century later, paper-making reaches Europe. Paper changes everything in the world of printing.
The earliest books are religious texts, like the gospels. Published scientific and literary works improve literacy across the continent.
Printing grows again in the thirteenth century. Type made from metal developed in China, Japan, and Korea. The Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters is the oldest book printed with metal type.
Next, let’s look at printing changes century by century.
Fifteenth Century Printing
By the fifteenth century, printing methods like woodblock were widespread. People in China and Japan used woodcut for centuries. Yet, the earliest European woodcut sample is from the start of the fifteenth century.
During this time books are rare. That’s because they are handwritten by scribes. It’s a long, laborious process. In 1436, Gutenberg starts working on a printing press.
After four years, Guttenberg has a wooden press. It uses moveable metal type. His earliest publications include a bible with 40 lines of text per page.
By 1475, a German artist known as the Master of the Housebook uses drypoint engraving to print. Drypoint engraving uses a sharp metal or diamond point needle to etch into a copper plate.
His famous manuscript, the Medieval Housebook, features drawings on many subjects. The volume shows weapons, hunting, landscapes, court life, and castles of the era.
Meanwhile, in Venice, Italy printers began to use Roman type. Roman type doesn’t look like handwritten letters. This’s different than the handwritten look other printers tried to copy.
William Caxton opened the first printing press in England in 1476. He bought equipment from the Netherlands for his establishment in Westminster. By 1499, 250 cities across Europe have printing establishments.
Distribution of books took place at book fairs. The Frankfurt Book Fair began soon after Guttenberg printed his first book. 500 years later, it remains one of the most important book fairs.
Sixteenth Century Innovations
Printing improvements continued in the next century. The innovations included a new woodcut technique. Lucas Cranach invented the chiaroscuro woodcut method. It used several woodcut blocks in different colors to create an illustration.
Printer Aldus Manutius figured out a way to print more portable books. Manutius was the first printer to use italic type. Francesco Griffo designed the italic type.
Books become more elaborate. In 1525, Albrecht Durer published a book on the geometry of letters. Scholar Pietro Bembo created books on Italian poetry and language. Christophe Plantin produced fine works with ornamented engravings. Plantin also printed the first reproductions.
Seventeenth Century Developments
When printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas reprinted the Bible in 1631 they make a huge error. The word “not” was missing from the commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Charles I weren’t happy. They fined the two printers and stripped of their printing license. That version of the Bible became The Wicked Bible, Adulterous Bible, and Sinner’s Bible.
In 1640 in Paris, the printing operation Imprimerie Royale du Louvre opened. It was the official government printer. The first published work was a French reprint of The Imitation of Christ. The popular spiritual book was first published in Latin in 1418.
In 1642 Ludwig von Siegen invented the mezzotint technique. Mezzotint is a technique that uses thousands of dots to reproduce halftones.
Another development toward the end of the century was the first American paper mill. In 1690, William Rittenhouse opened it outside Philadelphia.
In 1710, Jakob Christof Le Blon used a mezzotint technique invented 68 years earlier. The German painter and engraver used mezzotint to engrave three metal plates. The plates were then inked with red, yellow, and blue.
William Caslon created the now famous Caslon Roman Old Face for between 1716 and 1728. He modeled the letters on Dutch ones but made them more interesting. Caslon’s typefaces remain popular. Digital versions exist today.
In 1731, publication of the Gentleman’s Magazine begins. The general interest magazine existed until 1922.
Benjamin Franklin opened his printing office in 1732 in Philadelphia. He published the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac there.
At the end of the century, Alois Senefelder invented lithography. In 1796 he used it to print theatrical works in a less expensive way. Lithography is still popular in a refined form of the original method.
Giambattista Bodoni, an Italian designer, created a series of typefaces which remain popular. Bodoni letters have thick verticals with thin horizontal lines.
Printing in the Nineteenth Century
At the start of this century, Charles Stanhope built the first printing press with a metal frame. The Stanhope Press was durable, faster, and larger than previous wooden presses. It printed larger sheets, which meant faster production.
The next improvement was a cylinder press invented by Friedrich Gottlob Loenig. The 1812 press sped up the printing process. The first thing printed on the press were sheets G & X of Clarkson’s Life of Penn.
Godefroy Engelmann got a patent for chromolithography in 1837. Chromolithography printed in color using lithography. Chromolithographs are most often used for painting reproductions.
By 1842, the Illustrated London News was a weekly. Sir Henry Cole paid John Callcot Horsely to create art for a commercial Christmas card in 1843. Cole had about 1,000 cards printed and hand-colored.
American inventor Richard March Hoe designed the first lithographic rotary printing press. The type was on a revolving cylinder, not a flatbed. Printing was faster this way.
In 1871, Hoe invented a press that used a roll of paper rather than sheets. The continuous roll of paper changed newspaper publishing forever.
By 1878, Czech painter Karel Klic invented photogravure to reproduce photographs. The method captured detail and continuous tones.
Along with image improvements came advances in typesetting. Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine allowed operators to enter text with a keyboard. Keystrokes on the machine made slugs or lines of metal type.
The next invention was the flexographic press built by Bibby, Baron, and Sons in 1890. The flexographic press used a rubber printing plate. The first flexographic press smeared the ink.
Dramatic Changes in the Twentieth Century
It didn’t take long for printing presses to change again. In 1903, Ira Washington Rubel produced the first lithographic offset press for printing on paper.
Offset presses existed before then but were only used for printing on metal. Rubel’s version used a rubber roller to transfer the image from a printing plate or stone.
Screen printing entered the printing arena in 1907. That’s when Samuel Simon won a patent for the process. He used silk fabric as a printing screen. This technique was popular for printing fabrics and wallpaper. Screen printing that began in the Shang Dynasty in China, was a mainstream technique.
Hallmark created it’s first Christmas card in 1915. Around the same time, Time magazine and The Reader’s Digest began. Another innovation was the 1923 four-color Iris printing press for bank notes.
Penguin Books published the first successful paperback book series in the UK in 1935. A German company tried in 1931 but didn’t succeed.
Xerography reached the printing scene in 1938. It’s a dry photocopying technique. Chester Carlson invented the method. The first commercial xerographic copier came out in 1949. But it wasn’t popular until the 1959 Xerox 914 plain paper copier reached the market.
Along with commercial copiers, letterpress printing presses improved. In 1948, Shinohara Machine Company manufactured a flatbed letterpress machine in Japan. The German Heidelberg Tiegel was another popular press at mid-century.
The International Standard Book Number system began in 1967. Every commercial book gets a unique number for identification.
Also in 1967, the company Océ entered the market with an electrophotographic copier. It used paper treated with chemicals to copy documents.
Other new materials made more efficient presses possible. For example, silicone made printing on curved surfaces a reality. The technique is now used for mass production.
In 1973 newspaper circulation in the United States was at it’s highest. It stayed steady until a gradual decline began in the mid-1980s. Desktop publishing changed everything in 1985. Consumers began to embrace it for business and personal use.
The first laser printers were super expensive. They were too costly for personal use until the late 80s.
Computers, printers, and software evolved. The new technology made printing more affordable and accurate.
In 1986, web offset printing presses debuted. The presses were computer-assisted and automated. Press speed improved, too.
In 1990, Xerox launched a print engine with a scanner and finishing features. It printed 135 pages per minute in black and white. It could fold and staple. It was the first print-on-demand system.
Digital printing soared in 1993. New offset printing presses with special inks hit the market. Digital printing began to compete with traditional offset presses.
Welcome to the Twenty-first Century
While digital presses were hot, offset presses evolved, too. The waterless web press systems for newspapers and commercial printers arrived in 2000.
Another upgrade was the giant Goss Sunday 5000 press in 2009. The Goss was the world’s first 96-page web press.
Digital printing machines evolved as fast as the companies that made them. Mergers and acquisitions produced big players in the market. HP acquired Indigo in 2001. Cannon bought Océ in 2009. HP, Konica Minolta, and Canon emerge as industry leaders.
In 2007, the short run on-demand book printing market grew. Xerox introduced the WorkCentre 4112 system. It combined a printer, collator, binding and cutting units. The system printed a 300-page book in under 5 minutes.
The financial crisis of 2008 hit the printing industry hard. Newspapers suffered due to high paper prices. Print advertising revenues dropped as online ads became popular.
The industry focused on high-speed, high-quality inkjet machines. Companies like HP introduced new technology that combined versatile printing with eco-friendly methods.
Press manufacturers experienced financial problems as the newspaper and magazine industries declined.
The Future of Printing Timeline
We don’t know what printing looks like in the next century. Digital inkjet printing, web-to-print technology, and cross-media publishing are on today’s printing timeline.
Equipment manufacturers recognize industry changes and continue to adapt. That’s why consumers are comfortable with web-based printing vendors.