Printing Technology

Study Preview With the invention of movable metal type in the mid-1440s, suddenly the written word could be mass-produced. The effect on human existence was profound. Incorporating photographic technology with printing in the late 1800s added new impact to printed products.

Learning Objectives By the end of this module you will be able to:

  1. 2.2.1 Describe the invention of moveable metal type
  2. 2.2.2 Outline the ways in which moveable metal type changed communication
  3. 2.2.3 Summarize the development of print media after Gutenberg
  4. 2.2.4 Relate the invention of halftone to the integration of visual media in print

2.2.1 Movable Metal Type 1. Objective: Describe the invention of moveable metal type

Printing can be traced back a couple thousand years to eastern Asia. An invention in the mid-1440s made mass production of the written word possible for the first time, including the innovation of movable metal type. A tinkerer in what is now the German city of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg, was obsessed with melting and mixing metals to create new alloys. He came up with the idea to cast the individual letters of the alphabet in metal, and then assemble them one at a time into a page for reproduction by pressing paper onto the raised, inked characters. The metal characters were sturdy enough to survive the repeated pressure of transferring the inked letters to paper—

something not possible with the carved wood letters that had been used in earlier printing.

In time, industries grew up around the technology, each producing print media products that are still with us today—books, newspapers, and magazines. But historically, the impact of Gutenberg’s invention was apparent much earlier. Printing with the new Gutenberg technology took off quickly. By 1500, printing presses were in place throughout Europe. Suddenly civilization had the mass-produced written word.

Media People Dawn of Mass Communication

Johannes Gutenberg. Listen to learn about the Gutenberg’s Printing Press.

Johannes Gutenberg was eccentric—a secretive tinkerer with a passion for beauty, detail, and craftsmanship. By trade he was a metallurgist, but he never made much money at it. Like most of his fellow 15th century Rhinelanders in present-day Germany, he pressed his own grapes for wine. As a businessman, he was not very successful, and he died penniless. Despite his unpromising combination of traits, quirks, and habits—or perhaps because of them—Johannes Gutenberg created the most significant change in history: the mass-produced written word. He invented movable metal type.

Despite the significance of his invention, there is much we do not know about Gutenberg. Even to friends he seldom mentioned his experiments; and when he did, he referred to them mysteriously as his “secret art.” When he ran out of money, Gutenberg quietly sought investors, luring them partly with the mystique he attached to his work. What we know about Gutenberg’s “secret art” was recorded only because Gutenberg’s main backer didn’t receive the quick financial return he’d expected on his investment and sued. The litigation left a record from which historians have pieced together the origins of modern printing.

The date when Johannes Gutenberg printed his first page with movable type is unknown, but historians usually settle on 1446. Gutenberg’s printing process was widely copied—and quickly. By 1500, presses all over Western Europe had published almost 40,000 books.

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