Vintage printing press

10 Interesting Facts About the History of Printing

This week we thought we’d look at 10 interesting facts from the history of printing. Vintage printing press

  • Printing is one of the four great Chinese inventions alongside the compass, gunpowder and paper making. The first known use of printing technology was a stamp used to authenticate documents which was pressed into a sheet of clay in China in 22 B.C.
  • In Europe, the need for an alternative form of bookmaking came from the mass death of monks (the original bookmakers who copied Bibles by hand) during the Black Death. Plague also made printing materials more affordable, as the surplus of unwanted clothes left behind by the dead were recycled into ‘rag paper’ which was a much cheaper alternative to calf and sheepskin.
  • Religious works were the first documents printed in both Chinese and European printing traditions. The oldest known printed work is a Buddhist scripture printed from a woodblock during China’s Wu Zetian period between 684 and 705 AD. The earliest known printing examples done by Gutenberg were notes from the Pope, pardoning Christians for their sins (known as papal indulgences).
  • The terms upper and lower case hark back to the early days of printing when the smaller letters were stored in the lower case of a moveable type cabinet.
  • The first printing press was made from an adapted wine press. Instead of pressing grapes to extract the juice, Johannes Gutenberg modified the equipment to press metal letters onto paper.
  • Each individual piece of movable type was originally handmade by the printers, who often created their own typeface styles. Some of these early typeface styles are still widely used today. The Bodoni font for example, was made by Giambattista Bodoni, the official typesetter for several Italian Dukes in 1798. In the 21st century, the Bodoni font has reached iconic status after being used as both the cover font for Vogue Magazine and the Nirvana logo.
  • Trajan based fonts are the oldest typeface still in use today. The Trajan design is based on classical Roman forms which first appeared in 43BC and is characterised by width variation in the capitals, subtle variations in stroke changes, and splayed legs.
  • The oldest printing and publishing house in the world is Cambridge University Press, which was started with money from a royal charter which was granted by Henry VIII in 1534.
  • A man named Johann Fust was Gutenberg’s financial backer for the first printing press. Fust’s name translates to Faustus in Latin, which is the name of the protagonist in a Germen legend who sells his soul to the devil. This name association, alongside the fact that the red ink used in the Gutenberg Bible was sometimes mistaken for blood and the printing technology was so new, gave rise to rumours that Fust was practicing witchcraft.
  • The first continuous inkjet printing system was developed in 1867 and was known as a syphon recorder. However, it wasn’t until Canon engineer Ichiro Endo developed the thermal inkjet printer in 1957 that the technology became widely used.