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The Evolution of Print

The Evolution of Print

Read Time: 4 Minutes


16 Jun 2016

Call us biased, but print is pretty great. Its history runs parallel with the history of civilization. It’s been an integral part of our development as a species and has proved to be a key contributor in spreading culture across the globe. Talk about credentials!

For roughly 1,400 years, from the creation of woodcut printing to the modern day techniques of digital printing, we have strived for new and inventive ways to speed up and mechanize the print process. To give you a little more insight into how far print has come, we invite you to join us on a journey through the ages to highlight the key moments in the evolution of print…


Woodblock Printing - 200AD

Woodblock Printing is vintage printing at its best! It’s credited as the earliest form of printing and was first developed in China around 200AD. As the name suggests it involves carving a design into a block of wood. Once the wood is carved, the raised part is then inked and paper (or fabric, as it was) is placed on top. The ink is then transferred by applying pressure to the back of the paper (either manually or with a press) to create the image. The remaining woodcuts are used to produce both decorative artwork and lettering. Very crafty!


This invention of Woodblock Printing was revolutionary. It was the first time in history when a design could be created and then accurately and quickly replicated. Interestingly, Woodblock Printing wasn't popular in Europe until the 1400s, despite being developed in China whopping 1,200 years earlier! Behind the times or what!


 1b Woodblock Printing



Movable Type - 1041

Created by Bi Sheng in Song Dynasty China, Movable Type is similar to Woodcut, although this particular technique was used specifically for printing script. Before Movable Type, lettering had to be written out in full, whereas this technique allowed individual letters to be configured and placed together in any order. The tiles or tablets used to create the print were first made from clay, before wood and metal were introduced for better clarity and a more resilient finish.


3 Movable Type




The Printing Press - 1440

Johann Gutenberg is perhaps the most important person to feature in the evolution of print. He was responsible for the invention of the Printing Press, an innovative method that built on techniques such as Movable Type, but consolidated them into one device that could be operated by hand. This effects of the Printing Press were huge. It rapidly increased the speed at which printed materials could be produced, which meant that printed texts became widely available and were no longer just restricted to the wealthy. Because of this, lower class lifestyles improved drastically, as people had access to a whole new wealth of knowledge and could educate themselves through what they read.


4 The Gutenberg Press



ICONIC PRINT MOMENT - 'The Gutenberg Bible' - 1455

The very first book to be mass produced was ‘The Gutenberg Bible’ in 1455. The method used to do so was Moveable Type and around 180 copies were printed. This may seem small in comparison to today’s standard, but considering there were only around 30,000 books in the whole of Europe, it was a fair old run!


5 The Gutenberg Bible



Etching - 1515

Etching was used in the Middle Ages as a way to decorate metal arms and armour, and later down the line it was applied to printmaking by German craftsman, Daniel Hopfer. The process involves making prints from a metal plate, which is usually either copper or zinc. The plate is coated in an acid-resistant substance commonly referred to as Etching Ground, before it’s drawn on with a sharp tool. The plate is then placed in the acid which removes the areas not protected by the Etching Ground. This creates recessed lines which hold the ink. To finish off, the plate is placed on paper and sent through a press to create the print.


6 Etching on Armor



Lithography - 1796

Lithography is a technique which is still commonly used today. It revolves around the relationship between oil and water, which repel each other. An image is drawn onto limestone with an oil based medium such as a wax crayon. The stone is then covered in a solution of Gum Arabic, which is a natural gum made from the sap of an acacia tree. Using lithographic turpentine, the solution is then removed which allows the ink to take only where it’s required.


7 Lithography Process




The Rotary Press - 1843

Invented by Richard March Hoe, the Rotary Press was the natural successor of the Printing Press. It worked by using cylinders which the images to be printed were curved around. This was a lot faster than the older printing press and allowed for paper to be continuously fed through the press.


 8 Rotary + Offset Printing Press



Offset Printing - 1875

Although it was developed almost 150 years ago, Offset Printing remains almost unchanged today and is the most popular way of printing large runs. It works by transferring the inked from a plate to a rubber blanket and then to the printing surface. It’s commonly used today in combination with the Lithographic process to produce large runs of magazines, posters and other large format prints.


8b Modern Day Offset Printing Heidelberg Speedmaster SX 102 Jennies Photos.JPG



Screen Printing - 1910

Screen Printing was invented in China during the Song Dynasty between 960 - 1279AD, but it didn’t take off in Europe until the early 1910's, when silk stock became more available. The technique involves pushing ink through a mesh stencil onto textiles or paper. It’s a popular technique used often for t-shirt printing.


9 Screenprinting.jpg



Inkjet Printing - 1951

Thanks to Inkjet Printing, direct contact with paper is no longer required. Ink can now be applied by spraying it through jets. Fun!


10 First Inkjet Printer



Laser Printing - 1969

Once jets came into play, the printing field was wide open. Enter Laser Printing. This advanced method produces high quality images by passing a laser beam back and forth over a negatively charged cylinder within the printer. It then collects electrically charged powdered ink to transfer the image to the paper. Whoa!


11 Laser Printer



Digital Printing - 1991

In the dawn of the digital age, printing got faster and more easily accessible to everyone. Digital Printing made it possible to print straight from a digital file – and all from the comfort of your own home!


12 Digital Printer



Which brings us back to the future! As you can see, print has come a long, long way, but there’s so much more to come! With technical advancements coming in thick and fast, there’s a lot to be excited about, specifically the marvel that is 3D Printing! But that’s for another time…



Jessica Lindley

About the Author

Hi, I’m Jessica and I’m instantprint’s Content Executive. I enjoy writing content to help small businesses succeed and inspire them to get creative with their print marketing.