History of Print

Before 15th Century: Outside Europe

The rise of print took place primarily outside Europe until the Gutenberg Revolution in the Fifteenth Century. Paper was only invented in China in the 2 AD (and introduced soon after in the Middle East), but even before 3000 BC, some societies in Western Asia, China and Egypt began to utilise some kind of printing process – for example, using cylindrical rollers to make an impression of an image on a clay tablet, or stamps to print onto cloth. Later, in Asia, movable type characters were created first in clay (11 AD) and then in bronze (13 AD).

Before 15th Century: Inside Europe

Unlike in Asia and the Middle East, papermaking only reached Europe in the Twelfth Century. Likewise, even though woodcut had already been in use for centuries in China and Japan, the oldest known European specimen dates from the beginning of the 15th century. Books in Europe, prior to the mid-Fifteenth Century, were commonly written by scribes in a long and laborious process.

15th Century: Gutenberg Revolution

Printing in Europe was transformed by Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher living in Mainz, Germany in the mid- Fifteenth Century. Gutenberg was the first person to introduce mass-producing mechanical movable type printing to Europe, kick-starting the printing revolution and steering Europe towards modernisation. Among his first publications was the Gutenberg Bible, a two-colour (red and black) bible written in Latin – now widely considered one of the most valuable books in the world. By the end of the 15th century, printing had become established in more than 250 cities across Europe.

16th, 17th & 18th Centuries: Innovation & Growth

Over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, the European printing industry grew and evolved, impacting more and more people in society. New techniques and products frequently appeared – such as Antwerp-based printer Christophe Plantin’s facsimile. Printed materials also became closer to how we see them today, with the first use of Italic type and introduction of the Caslon Roman Old Face typeface between 1716 and 1728. Then, in 1710, German painter and engraver Jakob Christof Le Blon produced the first multi-colour engraving. This technique helped to form the foundation for modern colour printing. Moreover, lithography, still a dominant printing technique today (albeit now more refined), was invented in 1796.

19th Century: Modernisation

During the industrial revolution, print became an increasingly high performing and modern industry. For example, the first printing press using an iron frame (instead of wood) was built in 1800 by Charles Stanhope. This press was faster, more durable and could print larger sheets. Not far behind was the invention in 1812 by Friedrich Gottlob Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer of the first cylinder printing press made of iron (the renamed company KBA still exists as a large machinery producer). Then, in 1843, the first lithographic rotary printing press was invented by New Yorker Richard March Hoe. This press placed type on a revolving cylinder instead of a flatbed, which significantly sped up the printing process. In 1890, Bibby, Baron and Sons built the first flexographic press.

First half of 20th Century: Boom

The many significant inventions and revolutions of earlier centuries ensured that the printing industry in Europe began the 20th Century as a dominant and growing industry. But the revolution was not over yet. The first lithographic offset press for printing on paper was created in 1903 by American paper manufacturer Ira Washington Rubel and, in 1923, Koenig & Bauer launched their four-color Iris printing press, used for banknote printing. Many other machine producers who came into being during this time still exist today: such as Manroland, who were founded in 1911. During the first half of the 20th Century, printed products, such as greetings cards, paperback books and magazines, became more and more commercially popular, sustaining a booming industry.

Second half of 20th Century: New Technologies

By the end of the 20th Century, print was on the brink of another revolution: digitisation. Print technology had advanced to a stage where more and more people – in offices and at home – could print on demand. This was facilitated by the establishment of xerography (electrophotography), a dry photocopying technique, which became widespread after 1959 with the Xerox 914 plain paper copier. Then, in 1975, the first laser printers were introduced. At first, the cost of these was very high, but towards the end of the century this became less prohibitive. In 1985, desktop publishing commenced, which would go on to further revolutionise the printing industry by making content creation more accessible and affordable. Digital printing took off in 1993 with the introduction of the Indigo E-Print 100 and Xeikon DCP-1.

21st Century: Industry 4.0

The printing industry in Europe today is in the midst of a digital revolution: Industry 4.0. Today, the graphic industry seamlessly embodies both the traditional and the modern. It is innovative, modern, competitive and here to stay in a digital world. Technology for the more traditional presses (i.e. offset and flexography) continues to improve year-on-year, while the tech for new processes like digital printing are evolving faster than companies can produce machines.