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Think about some of the printed items that you may have seen today. Perhaps the newspaper in the morning, magazines in a store, and books at school. All of these things require a printing press to create inked letters, words, and images on paper. Several centuries ago, people did not have this kind of technology. To create a sheet of text, they had to manually write it down themselves. If they wanted to make multiple copies, they actually had to write it out laboriously, several times over! The printing press is considered one of the most important inventions of our time. Let’s explore its history and find out how it changed the world. The First Printing Press Prototypes The earliest versions of printing originated in China around A.D. 105. By that time, they had figured out how to carve text on blocks, dip them in ink, and then stamp them onto stone or paper. We still use this technique today, in a way, when we use rubber stamps. The ancient Chinese methods of printing were passed on through Arabian merchants, who eventually brought this knowledge over to Europe by the 1300s.
Johannes Gutenberg’s Printing Press Johannes Gutenberg was a German living in the 1400s. Since he was quite poor, he realized he could make a lot of money quickly by mass-producing books or other printed materials. He created metal blocks that each only contained one character: letters, numbers, and punctuation. These blocks could then be rearranged at will, to create any type of text. This process is known as movable type, since the type or letters can be moved around. Gutenberg also decided to create a machine to make multiple copies of the text, instead of making each copy by hand. It was only after he died that this version of the printing press became far more popular.
Later Types of Printing Presses In the following centuries, other printers experimented with Gutenberg’s technique to create better versions of the press. They saw the value of creating parts that were cast from metal with a single mould, instead of hand-carving each part from wood. Later, in the early 1800s, a man named Friedrik Koenig developed a steam-powered version that printed even faster. The next major milestone was the idea to use large rolls of paper instead of single sheets. It allowed the machines to print much faster, and cutting was done afterwards.
The Printing Press in the United States When European settlers first began migrating to America, printing presses did not exist there or were extremely rare. This was mainly because they were large, difficult and expensive to set up, as were ink and paper. Another issue was distributing printed materials in such a vast country. Printers only became used more by the 18th century. Even so, by the time it reached people, the news was already outdated. However, during the Civil War, newspapers became a very important and valuable source of information about events that were happening far away.
Modern-Day Printing Presses Today printing presses are not operated by hand or by steam. They are all electronic and digital! Designers send digital page layout files from their computers to the print shop. There, the printer sets up the files and sends a command to the machine to start printing the pages. It is now much cheaper and faster to print mass copies. A digital printing press can churn out thousands of copies a minute! Apart from large commercial presses, most of also have a smaller version in our homes. Personal printers are another way of printing and making copies of information on a smaller scale.
Printing Press Fun! Want to learn more about printing presses? Have a look through some of the fun resources collected below. The virtual printing press will give students an idea of what it is like to create a newspaper layout for print. After that, run through an overview of the evolution of the printing press, or take a peek at the printing press glossary to look up any difficult or technical words.