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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > Books Before and After > Printing Yesterday and Today
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Printing Yesterday and Today

Untitled Illustration from Proben aus der Schriftgiesserey der Andreäischen Buchanlung in Franfurt am Main (1854).

How has printing changed since Gutenberg's invention?

Today, printing is very different from the process used in Gutenberg's workshop. By modern standards, Gutenberg's printing process may seem slow and tedious; compositors put type together by hand, and a skilled compositor could assemble 2,000 characters or letters in an hour. A computer can arrange the same number of characters in about two seconds. Today, more words are being printed every second than were printed every year during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

What changed? Why aren't we still using Gutenberg's press? Until the nineteenth century, printers completed each step of printing by hand, just as they did in Gutenberg's printshop. As technology evolved, inventors adapted these new technologies to revolutionize printing. Steam engines and, later, electrical engines were incorporated into the design of printing presses. In the 1970s, computers were integrated into the printing process.

Illustration of Stanhope Press, (1800) from Robert Hoe's A Short History of the Printing Press and of Improvements in Printing Machinery from the Time of Gutenberg up to the Present Day (1902)

Clymer's Columbian Press (1816)

The Printing Press Gets Recast in Cast Iron

In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, inventors began modifying the printing press by making parts of the press out of metal instead of wood. Earl Stanhope of England created a printing press with a cast-iron frame. In 1800, he invented the Stanhope Press, which was the first book press made completely out of cast-iron. The press also featured a combination of levers to give the pressman added power. It created powerful, cleaner impressions, which were ideal for printing woodcuts and larger formats.

The Columbian Press, invented in 1816 by George Clymer of Philadelphia, was also an iron hand press. It could print 250 copies per hour. The press was noteworthy because it used a series of weights and counterweights, making it relatively easy for the printer to increase the force of the impression and raise the platen after each impression. The eagle mounted on the top of the press served as both a patriotic symbol and a counterweight.

Like Gutenberg's press, these platen presses had a flat surface bearing the paper, which was pressed against the flat-inked plate.

Treadwell's Wooden-Frame Bed-and-Platen Power Press (1822) from Robert Hoe's A Short History of the Printing Press and of Improvements in Printing Machinery from the Time of Gutenberg up to the Present Day (1902).

Single Small Cylinder Press (1832) from Robert Hoe's A Short History of the Printing Press and of Improvements in Printing Machinery from the Time of Gutenberg up to the Present Day (1902).

Stereotyping. c. 1916. in The Printing Trades by Frank Shaw (1916).
Newspapers first used cylinder presses. Note the stack of curved plates in the photograph. These plates are molded plates of type that were mounted onto the cylinder of the press.

Ten Cylinder Rotary Type-Revolving Press (R. Hoe), c. 1856 from Robert Hoe's A Short History of the Printing Press and of Improvements in Printing Machinery from the Time of Gutenberg up to the Present Day (1902).
Newspaper and magazine presses were often large, specially constructed machines that would produce many copies as quickly as possible.

Mechanized Presses

In 1824, Daniel Treadwell of Boston first attempted to mechanize printing. By adding gears and power to a wooden-framed platen press, the bed-and-platen press was four times faster than a handpress. This type of press was used throughout the nineteenth century and produced high-quality prints.

In 1812, Friedrik Koenig invented the steam-driven printing process and dramatically sped up printing. The Koenig Press could print 400 sheets per hour. Richard Hoe, an American press maker made improvements to Koenig's design, and in 1832 produced the Single Small Cylinder Press. In a cylinder press, a piece of paper is pressed between a flat surface and a cylinder in which a curved plate or type is attached. The cylinder then rolls over the piece of surface and produces an impression over the paper. Cylinder presses were much faster than platen and hand presses and could print between 1,000 and 4,000 impressions per hour.

In 1844, Richard Hoe invented the rotary press. A rotary press prints on paper when it passes between two cylinders; one cylinder supports the paper, and the other cylinder contains the print plates or mounted type. The first rotary press could print up to 8,000 copies per hour. Larger rotary presses, containing multiple machines, made printing large newspaper runs possible.

Bullock Press, 1865 from Robert Hoe's A Short History of the Printing Press and of Improvements in Printing Machinery from the Time of Gutenberg up to the Present Day (1902).
First continuous roll-fed press.

Rolls of newsprint at the New York Journal American (1940). New York Journal American Prints Collection.
Imagine how many rolls of paper a daily newspaper goes through a day!

Changing the paper roll. New York Journal American, c. 1939.

Paper: On A Roll

In 1865, William Bullock invented the Bullock Press, which was the first press to be fed by continuous roll paper. The use of roll paper is important because it made it much easier for machines to be self-feeding instead of fed by hand. Once threaded into the machine, the paper was then printed simultaneously on both sides by two cylinder forms and cut by a serrated knife. The press could print up to 12,000 pages per hour, and later models could produce 30,000 pages per hour. The first roll papers were over five miles in length. Today, roll paper is still used in many presses.

Linotype Operator (Journal American, c. 1937)

Linotype Operators (Journal American 1940)

Reporter using a typewriter in 1937 (New York Journal American Prints Collection)
The typewriter was invented in 1906. Monotype and linotype designs built on the keyboard of the typewriter.

Lanston Monotype Machine, 1911
From Motor Drive for the Printing and Allied Trades. General Electric Company, 1911

Mechanical Composition

Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all type was set and composed by hand, as in Gutenberg's workshop. Monotype and Linotype machines changed the printing process because they used mechanical means of setting type, which was much more efficient than hand composition.

In a Linotype machine, an operator would type on a keyboard similar to a typewriter, which produced a perforated band of paper. The band was then decoded by a machine that cast type from hot metal. These machines cast a whole row of type at a time, so if an operator made an error it meant the whole line would have to be retyped and recast.

Invented in 1889, the Monotype machine worked much like the Linotype machine. A monotype operator would similarly type out a text. Each key stroke produced a perforated tape. The operator then tore off the tape and ran it through a separate casting machine, which produced a mould containing matrices for each character. Monotype had the advantage of being easier to correct because it was possible to remove a single letter of type, rather than having to recast a whole row of type. Monotype also produced a finer quality type, so it was frequently used in the book trade, while linotype was often used at newspaper presses because of its speed and economy.

The Journal American printing press, c. 1940
Photo from the New York Journal American Collection

Young students using a computer

Printing Today: The Personal Computer Revolution

Although some of the printing techniques we have discussed are still used, many have been revolutionized by the invention of computers. Today, a student using a personal computer is simultaneously doing the jobs of author, editor, and compositor.

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