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The history of the printing industry is a fascinating story that has evolved incredibly over the last thousand years. Some might have a difficult time imagining the printing industry being that deep and well-established. Others might have thought with the rise of the internet and Google Ads that printing would become obsolete. Even in our modern technological age, the printing industry is flourishing.

The First Printing Press

The history of the printing industry begins with the oldest known text that originated in China around 877 A.D. During the Tang Dynasty, the Buddhist book The Diamond Sutra was created with a method known as block printing. This method used hand-carved wood blocks that represented letters in reverse. The blocks were dipped in ink and then placed on the paper to transfer written words quicker. Block printing gained popularity and quickly replaced rolled-up scrolls. Many calendars and educational materials were created using block printing during this time.

As block printing became more popular throughout Asia, Bi Sheng improved upon the technique throughout his lifetime from 970 to 1051 A.D. He saw that the current method used a block that represented a word, which created limitations on how many different words could be created. The wooden blocks also had to be discarded after a few uses because the texture of wood is inconsistent and absorbs moisture too easily. Bi Sheng developed a block printing method that used moveable individual letters which could create more words. His improved method of block printing also used hard-backed clay, which was easier to clean, more consistent and lasted much longer than wood.

In 1297, block printing was improved once again by Wang Chen. He was able to increase the speed of printing, using a revolving table for typesetters to organize the blocks. Wang Chen used wood blocks, but devised a way to make the wood more durable and precise for his new invention. With his faster and more accurate printing press established, Wang Chen went on to mass produce the world’s first book, Nung Shu. The book was exported to Europe and, ironically, would become the proof that the Chinese invented the printing press before the Europeans.

What about the Gutenberg Press?

Many of us were taught about the Gutenberg Press that Johannes Gutenberg invented in 1450 in school. This was 150 years after Wang Chen’s innovation. Despite the delay to Europe, Gutenberg improved the printing press model by using metal instead of wood. He also created his own ink that adhered to the metal better than traditional inks and perfected a method for flattening the printing paper. Gutenberg used a winepress that was used to press grapes for wines and olives for oil and modified it into his printing press design.

In 1452, Gutenberg printed calendars, pamphlets and other small items, as well as one book. That one book would become known as the Gutenberg Bible, which would also become his greatest contribution to the printing industry. Prior to this time, only clergy of the church had copies of the bible. Now, thanks to Gutenberg, the common people could also obtain a copy of the bible. It is estimated that he printed 180 copies of the 1,300 paged bible. His printed bibles were so well produced that the future Pope Pius II wrote to Cardinal Carvajal in Rome that the bibles were “exceedingly clean and correct in their script, and without error, such as Your Excellency could read effortlessly without glasses.”

Despite the success of the Gutenberg Bible, it would prove to be Johannes Gutenberg’s undoing. In 1455, his partner Johann Fust sued Gutenberg for a return on the large sum of money Fust loaned Gutenberg to help produce his bibles. Gutenberg lost the lawsuit and had to surrender all his printing equipment and half the completed bibles to Fust. What happened to Gutenberg after the lawsuit is unclear, as much of his life is undocumented.

Fun Fact:

Of the original 180 copies, only 49 Gutenberg Bibles still exist in library, university and museum collections today. Of those, less than half are complete and some only consist of a single volume or few pages. The Morgan Gutenberg Library & Museum is the only institution in the world that possesses three copies of the Gutenberg Bible. In 1978, the last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible went for $2.2 million, and in 1987, a lone volume sold for $5.4 million.

The First Publisher’s Colophon

When Fust acquired Gutenberg’s printing press, he turned to Gutenberg’s old assistant, Peter Schoffer. Together, the two men continued the printing business and peddled the rest of the bibles. Schoffer would go on to produce more books, including The Book of Psalms, which featured a three-color title page. It also included the first colophon, or Publisher’s emblem, in history, which featured the publication information of the book. This would allow readers to know which printing press produced the book and establish Schoffer’s printing brand with consumers.

The Printing Industry Makes History

Over the next 200 years, the printing press would spread throughout Europe, and right behind it spread revolutionary ideas. In an attempt to maintain control of the people, Pope Alexander VI threatened to excommunicate anyone who printed manuscripts without the church’s approval in 1501. Twenty years later, his fears became reality when Martin Luther, John Calvin and Nicolaus Copernicus spread books sharing their beliefs about how the Catholic Church should function.

Fun Fact:

Upper case and lower case letters derive their names from the print industry! Printers would organize the different letters into boxes, an “upper case” box for the capitalized letters and a “lower case” box for the non-capitalized letters. Over time, it became easier to say the upper case or lower case letter instead and the nickname stuck.

The First Newspaper Company

The Relation became the first official newspaper that was printed and distributed in 1605. Within a few months, newspaper companies appeared all across Europe, further adding to the value of the printing press’ importance to society. Never before had ideas and education been so easily accessible to ordinary people, if they could read. During this time period in England, for example, literacy rates for men were just under 50% and women were less than 10%. This means that a majority of people would rely on someone else to read the newspaper or other materials to them.

Fun fact:

Today, 87% of the world’s population aged 15 years or older can read. That is a great improvement from what it was in the 1600s! If it weren’t for the popularity of the printing press, the need and skills for literacy would not have spread as quickly.

History of the Printing Industry in America

The printing press would go on to inspire hundreds of thousands of people in America. Leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, many papers were printed and distributed throughout the colonies. Written works such as Common Sense by Thomas Paine led colonizers to question the British government and authority in America. Newspapers quickly spread word of the Boston Tea Party  and the injustice of the Boston Massacre, which became one of the earliest known incidents where the newspaper swayed readers with emotional wording. Without the invention of the printing press, these ideas and events would not have spread fast enough for the other colonies to decide to take up arms against the British. After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Jefferson committee worked carefully to print additional copies to be distributed in assemblies, conventions and committees in the American colonies.

Printing Images

The earliest known methods for printing images (not letters or text) are: intaglio, relief printing and stenciling. All 3 of these methods can be traced back hundreds of years and are believed to have been inspired by goldsmiths who would engrave and decorate metalwork, such as armor.

Intaglio printing

A technique where a design is cut, scratched or etched into a plate or surface. The ink would then be placed on the surface so that it seeped into the design. Then the remaining ink would be removed from the surface so it could be applied to the paper.

Relief printing

This technique is essentially the opposite of intaglio. Instead of the design being cut, scratched or etched into a surface, the user would instead remove the excess surface until all that was left was the design (similar to how a stamp would look).


A technique for reproducing designs by passing ink or paint over holes that have been cut into a wood or metal surface.

Each of these 3 printing methods can be time consuming and the design is largely dependent on how skilled the printer was in creating it.

It wasn’t until 1796 that Alois Senefelder invented Lithography – a process for transferring drawn images onto paper. This helped create greater flexibility for printers to use designs from anyone. The design is drawn on a flat stone and affixed by means of a chemical reaction. Lithography used a relatively flat print plate, which allowed for much longer runs than Embossing or Engraving.

Fun fact:

In the early days, limestone was used to transfer the image, hence the name “lithography”. Lithos is the Ancient Greek word for Stone.

Printing Innovations

Printing methods continue to evolve in small increments, and often times, by mistake. In 1847, Richard Hoe advanced printing technology by using a cylinder to transfer ink instead of a flat surface. His improvement would become the rotary printing press, and it could print 8,000 papers per hour. By 1871, he improved the printing process a step further when he devised a way to continuously feed the press paper and print on both sides.

Fascinated by the speed of the cylinder Hoe used, Robert Barclay combined the methods of the rotary printing press and lithography printing methods to produce the first offset lithographic printing press.

In the 1900s, photography became popular and the need to share photos grew. Traditional lithography printing methods failed to provide the same effect as the physical photo. Ira Washington Rubel accidentally discovered a better way to print photos when he forgot to load a sheet of paper during the printing process. He realized that the rubber mat moving the paper through the printer produced a more accurate image than the metal.

Print Advertising Increases

The 1900s continued to see many advancements in the printing industry as consumerism and the need to advertise increased. Here are some quick facts about the history of the printing industry that revolutionized how we print materials today!

1900 – the first book bindery machines are created by August Kolbus

1902 – the first global advertising agency, McCann Erickson, is established in New York City and offers a variety of printing services

1906 – The Eagle Printing Ink Company is the first to use CYMK printing methods.

1915 – Hallmark creates and mails their first Christmas card.

1935 – the first paperback books are published by Penguin Books in the UK.

1949 – Fortune magazine’s July issue contains the first commercial scanned color image.

1959 – the first successful commercial plain paper copier, Xerox 914 is introduced.

1963 – Pantone Inc. introduces the world’s first color matching system.

1972 – ROLAND 800 is the first sheet-fed offset press to have an integrated ink control system. This upgrade allows it to print up to 10,000 sheets per hour.

1984 – The Apple Macintosh is the first computer that combines a graphical user interface and a mouse. It sold for $2,490 at the time, which is equivalent to $7,141.96 today!

1985 – desktop publishing becomes more popular and easier to do when Apple and Adobe create a PostScript controller for their Apple LaserWriter. This allows graphic designers to output typesetter quality pages.

1993 – the first digital press is introduced by Indigo, who would later be acquired by HP in 2002.

Modern Printing Today

The printing industry has come a long way and continues to see advancements every year. At Walker360, we are constantly attending conferences and events to see what the latest advancements are and how we can get them. Whether it is buying a new printing press, finding new resources for our employees to learn from or investing in better software, we strive to be more than just a printing company. Our current initiatives are investing in rolled paper to produce and complete more print jobs than ever before. Rest assured that no matter where the printing industry goes in the future, Walker360 will have the best and most up to date equipment possible. If you are interested in learning more about our printing services, contact us today!