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Printing – Past, Present, and Future

Modern Commercial Printing

What is Printing?

A standard dictionary definition of the word printing will basically refer to the production of printed material namely magazines, books, and the like. Nowadays it actually means a bit more than just producing text. The process of printing today involves the production of images as well as text.

The original media that everyone knows of is some form of paper. However, there are non-paper products that were and are used even in the earliest days of this technology. In this page we’ll cover what printing is, its history, and its modern day developments.


Many of us would associate modern-day printing with movable type, the system that was invented by Gutenberg back in 1450. However, this style of mechanical printing wasn’t the first of its kind. Nevertheless, you can’t take away the genius of Johannes Gutenberg’s creation.

However, let’s take a few steps back before the dawn of Gutenberg’s movable type and survey the earliest forms of printing. It’s of course true that mankind has always wanted to preserve texts for the use of future generations. A lot of trial and error went along just to find the most efficient way to do just that.

Woodblock Printing: From Fabric to Paper

For instance, one of the earliest methods involved the use of materials other than paper. It’s quite obvious that paper, versatile as it may be, doesn’t have a really long shelf life. That’s why one of the earliest specimens of printing that some archaeologists have unearthed includes cylinder seals.

A good example of that form is the Cyrus Cylinder. Another good example is the Nobonidus Cylinders. Obviously they were more durable and they lasted for centuries. However, they weren’t a practical form of media since you don’t want to run around carrying cylinders to class or to a lecture.

And that’s why paper, in its various forms, for the most part has become the most popular form of print media. But it would take a few centuries before paper would take its rightful place in the industry.

The earliest form of Eastern printing we have on record dates back to 220 AD and earlier in East Asia. Back then they used what is called woodblock printing. It was a method for printing on textiles. The earliest sample we have dates back to the Han Dynasty – a silk frontispiece with three columns and it has flowers and text printed on it.

Another early sample of printing – this time on paper – is the Diamond Sutra, which is housed in the British Library. This specimen dates back to the 9th century, 868 AD.

The art of block printing spread like wildfire, and quite early too, in countries like Japan and Korea, who used similar logograms as do the Chinese. The technique used in these countries soon spread to other nearby countries like Russia and Persia.

Europe on the other hand caught on to this technique around 1400 AD. The technique was transmitted by the Arabs and the rest of the Islamic world. It’s quite ironic that back then a master printer could print 2,000 pages (well, double pages to be exact) in a single day, yet not a single page of the Quran was printed. It was actually due to restrictions imposed by Muslim doctrine.

The Advent of Movable Type

Useful as it may be, woodblock printing wasn’t as flexible as one might want it to be. The process of carving on wood so that you can transfer the images and text onto a piece of material wasn’t the most efficient way to go about printing.

And this is where movable type takes the forefront. Nevertheless, the very first movable type printer wasn’t invented by Gutenberg – well, not just yet. The very first one dates back to 1040 AD, which was invented by Bi Sheng.

Note that Bi Sheng’s movable type was nowhere as efficient as Gutenberg’s. The Chinese version used porcelain pieces, which broke easily. A better version of this Chinese movable type was invented later in 1298 by Wang Zhen and it used wood. It was more efficient and sturdier, since wood doesn’t break as easily as porcelain. However, Wang’s invention still relied heavily on woodblock printing, which made it less efficient – that’s why people there tended to prefer block, since it was still more practical and cheaper.

It wasn’t until the year 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg introduced the very first, shall we say, “modern” movable type printing press. Gutenberg’s press was actually an adaptation of the screw press. Other than the fact that it used metal type pieces and ink, he also introduced a newer type of material – a more absorbent type of paper, one that was actually softer by comparison.

Much of what Gutenberg introduced then is still in use today. His type pieces were constructed out of a metal alloy that contained bismuth, copper, antimony, tin, and lead among other things. These are still the same materials used today to create movable type pieces in modern day printing machines. Needless to say, Gutenberg is credited with having invented the very first movable type system.

NOTE: What is a screw press? We mentioned that Gutenberg based his invention on a screw press. The screw press was invented by the Romans, where a ram was driven up and down via a screw. The idea is to rotate the handle at the top of the screw shaft that drives downward pressing down. This device was primarily used back then in the production of olive oil and wine.

So with a more efficient way to print, albeit faster too, what would Gutenberg print first and foremost? Surprisingly it was the Bible. So in 1455 he printed what was to be known as the Gutenberg Bible.

The Impact of the Printing Press

Historians regard Gutenberg’s printing press as the most important invention of the second millennium of earth’s history. It radically changed the way people lived. For the first time, the printing of books and other papers were made cheaper. The process was also made a lot cheaper.

That meant that books hit the streets like wildfire – well, not exactly, but it was definitely close. You see, by the year 1500 more than 500,000 books have been in circulation. The topics that were covered by printed material included everything from Columbus’ memoirs to classical Greek.

Another effect was that the literacy levels of the general populace increased in gradual increments at an astounding rate. For the first time a new flare had been sparked in the hearts of the people – the passion for reading. The people in Europe started to learn how to read a lot better as the prices of books became cheaper.

The information drive eventually paved the way for the full blossoming of the Renaissance. In those days, book fairs became an annual event attended by pretty much everyone who could afford a book.

Scientific works were immediately made more available. Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis was easily copied and distributed, which led to the Protestant Reformation.

Today, you can buy books for less than $10. Of course, the advent of eBooks made the distribution of printed material a lot easier. But of course, that’s another story altogether.

It’s ironic that Gutenberg died poor in 1468. He lost all his savings via legal proceedings. The legal battle was with a business partner, and it cost him dearly.

Here are the positive effects of the printing press:

• It sparked the industrialization of Europe
• It encouraged and helped spread secularism and humanism
• The modern way of life and thinking began with increased literacy
• Governments were now given an instrument that could be used to distribute and publish laws.
• It made it easier for scholars to communicate
• It provided an incentive to educate people

The Rotary Press

The next step in printing technology was the rotary press. In this system, the items to be printed were setup around a cylinder. For the first time, a really large volume of printing can now be done in substrates. In terms of capacity, these presses can print in thousands of pages, while Gutenberg-style presses printed in the hundreds. That’s a huge number in terms of volume.

Gutenberg-style presses (invented in ca. 1600) made 200 impressions per hour. The Stranhope press (invented in ca. 1800) more than doubled that, by making 480 impressions per hour.

All of that was trumped by the steam press, with the first Koenig press (ca. 1812) printing 800 impressions per hour. The next version of the Koenig (ca. 1813) printed 1,100 impressions an hour. The next Koenig Press invented the following year printed 2,000 impressions an hour. The last steam press invented in 1818 printed 2,400 impressions an hour.


The following are some of the many different types of print technologies that have been introduced through the years.


The letter press is actually a relief printing technique. This is the Gutenberg-style printing. Movable type is composed and locked into place on a bed. It’s then inked and then pressed onto paper to make an impression.


This is one of the really popular methods of printing. An inked image is transferred (aka offset) to a rubber blanket. It’s used with a lithographic process, thereby the ink is only transferred to the intended printing area and the nonprinting area only attracts water or some other non-printing medium. Most books and newspapers today use this technology.


This is the modern method – see the printer in your office? That’s part of this new printing technology. Of course there are other forms of digital printing today, such as solid ink, laser, electrophotography, inkjets, heat transfers, line printing, dot matrix, daisy wheels, and blueprints.

3D Printing:

This technology makes use of 3D printers which make 3 dimensional images. It can be considered as a form of manufacturing technology as well, since actual physical objects are manufactured using this technology, and not just images or text.

Screen Printing:

Screen printing makes use of a blocking stencil, which makes the non-printing area impermeable to ink. A squeegee is run across a screen to fill the openings in the mesh not covered by the stencil.

Large Format:

This technology is also known as wide format printing. It makes use of computer controlled print machines and makes prints on large posters, vinyl banners, and others.


This is the technique or technology used for printing on labels, packaging, and in some newspapers as well.

Intaglio Printing:

Ever wonder why printed currency is very difficult to copy using your printer at home? It’s because it’s made with this technology. Intaglio printing is used for high value documents, which of course includes the printing of paper money.

Thermal Printing:

You have seen the print made by a fax machine, right? This is the technology used by such devices. The same technology is used for printing supermarket labels, baggage tags, and the like.

Gang Run:

In this technique, multiple objects are printed on a paper sheet. A CMYK process is used for color jobs. The term gang run means putting more than one type of printable object on a large sheet. The system saves a lot of paper in the long run.

Types of Equipment


A thermal printer is a type of printer that makes use of an inexpensive technique. It works by pushing or pressing heated pins against a type of paper that is heat sensitive. Calculators, tag machines, and fax machines make use of this type of printer.

Line Printer

This type of printer makes use of a line of pins or a chain of characters. It actually prints one line of text at a time. Even though they produce low quality type of print, they print very fast. That makes them a pretty good low cost option.

Dot Matrix

This is an early type of computer printer and it makes use of pins that are pressed against a ribbon that’s full of ink. Each pin makes a dot and the dots are aligned in a variety of combinations to produce both images and text.


This is the type of printer used by copy machines. Given the name of this printer, it makes use of laser technology to create impressions on paper. This technology actually makes high quality graphics and text.

Daisy Wheels

If you have seen a ball head typewriter, then you have seen how a daisy wheel printer operates. They are actually pretty similar. This printer either has a metal or a plastic ball where a relief of the characters that can be printed are found. These reliefs are then pressed against a ribbon that has ink. Note that daisy wheels can only produce text and not images or graphics.

Ink Jet

These are pretty common table top printers that can be connected to your computer or to a local area network. How it works is by spraying ink on paper. This type of printer can actually produce really high quality graphics and text. Other than that, they’re relatively cheap, which contributed to their popularity today.

LED and LCD Printers

These printers are similar to laser printers. The big difference of course is the use of light emitting diodes or in some models the use of liquid crystals. Laser printers use lasers to impress images on a drum that will then be pressed on paper – these printers on the other hand uses the aforementioned materials to create the impressions or text to be printed on a drum.

Commercial Printing Companies

Commercial printing companies are in the business of large scale printing. They print everything from books, letterheads, envelopes, catalogs, calendars, brochures, and more.

Some of the products printed by commercial printing companies include the following:

• banners
• brochures
• booklets
• books
• business presentations
• brochure holders
• bulletins
• cards
• business cards
• bookmarks
• calendar
• club cards
• campaign media
• catalogs
• door hanger
• CD covers
• coil bound booklets
• flyers
• direct mail media
• envelopes
• greeting cards
• file folders
• folders
• invitations
• forms
• hang tags
• letterheads
• holiday cards
• journals
• mailers
• labels
• magazines
• menus
• magnets
• mailing envelopes
• pocket folders
• memo pads
• newsletters
• notepads
• newspapers
• note cards
• plastic cards
• posters
• playing cards
• political media
• price lists
• postcards
• post-it notes
• promotional products
• presentation folders
• remittance envelopes
• rack card holders
• rack cards
• reports
• receipt books
• stationery
• signs
• tickets
• statement stuffers
• stickers
• yard signs
• table tents

These companies also provide services other than just printing materials. Some of these companies help customers with campaign planning, marketing advice, graphic design, commercial printing, full color printing, and some of them even help with website development.

What to Look for in a Printing Company

If you have a pressing need to hire the services of a commercial printing company, then here are a few things to look out for:

1. Check out their capacities – ask them about the maximum volume they can print or produce in a day.
2. You should also inspect the quality of their output – needless to say, it should be first rate quality.
3. You should also test the level of their customer service. Call their customer support hotline. Check if there are any complaints against them with the BBB.
4. Find out how else can the company be of help in your campaign. Do they offer services other than printing?

Finally, consider how competitive their pricing is. Ask for a quote. Compare theirs to the quotes provided by the competition.

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