by Sam Jackson

It’s no secret that many great things have humble beginnings. Such is the case with the print Industry.

Discovery in the East

Although the history of printing can be traced back as far as 3500 BCE, in this article we’ll focus more on the development of movable type. The story of movable type begins in China during the 11th century, with a man named Bi Sheng.

Bi Sheng was recorded as “a commoner” of “unofficial position.” Essentially, he was a regular guy with extraordinary ideas. None of the details of his life or ancestry were documented aside from his most prized invention: the very first iteration of movable type. This became his legacy. It is also one of the initial sparks that would end up igniting a massive worldwide industry.

Depicted above is a revolving typecase for wooden type, developed by Bi Sheng. Though Bi Sheng at times used wood for his movable type, he preferred to use ceramics. He cut characters into wet clay and then baked it until hard to set the type.

Introduction to the West

It wasn’t until several centuries later that a viable form of movable type was introduced to the Western World. This innovation came through the mind of Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith who developed the first mechanical printing press in Europe.

During the early 1440s, Gutenberg is said to have placated investors by promising to share with them a “secret” of great value. Many speculate that he was referring to his method of printing with movable type.

Soon afterward he unveiled his research and opened up the first print shop in the western world. While his exact technique for making movable type remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, the impact of his invention is clear.

The flat-bed printing press shown above would ultimately come to alter the course of human history. Gutenberg’s invention made possible the mass production of movable type. His press stands as one of the greatest milestones in the second millennium: the mechanism that started the Print Revolution and ushered in a new age of widely dispersed and easily-accessible knowledge.

The spread of literacy and information made possible by this press is considered a key catalyst in almost every great human revolution since its conception. From the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution- the Gutenberg press and the innovations that followed it have played a major role in the changing landscape of our societies.

Further Enhancements

Once the immense value of print became clear, there have been many great minds who have improved and reinvented the printing process.

Take, for example, the invention of the rotary printing press by American mechanic and inventor Richard M. Hoe in 1843. In this method of print, the type was placed on a revolving cylinder that allowed printing to be done quickly on long rolls of paper and other substrates.

The invention and perfection of the rotary printing press is credited with making possible the rapid and inexpensive production of newspapers in the US.

Since then, and as the print-marketing industry blossomed into an international behemoth, print innovation has been a steady force across the globe. From the off-set press to the dot matrix printer, from the laser printer to the digital press- the methods and efficiency of print have been growing to match an ever-increasing global demand.

Though print began as cuts on a block of clay, today it employs the most advanced human technology as it fuels a $1.2 trillion industry across the world.