The printing press is a mechanical device for printing many copies of a text on paper. German craftsman and printer Johann Gutenberg is often credited with its invention in the 1450s, and he did make major contributions to the technology, but the press itself was previously known and used by European textile makers to print patterns on fabric. The Diamond Sutra of AD 868, a Buddhist scripture, was the first dated example of block printing. Apart from Gutenberg, the Dutch Laurens Janszoon Coster has also been credited with this invention.
In the Far East, movable type and printing presses were known but did not replace printing from individually carved wooden blocks, from movable clay type and from movable metal type, processes much more efficient than hand copying. The use of movable type in printing was invented in 1045 AD by Bi Sheng in China. Since there are thousands of Chinese characters, the benefit of the technique is not as obvious as in European languages.
Although unaware of the Chinese printing methods, Gutenberg refined the technique with the first widespread use of movable type, where the characters are separate parts that are inserted to make the text. Gutenberg is also credited with the first use of an oil-based ink, and using "rag" paper introduced into Europe from China by way of Muslims.
Previously, books were copied mainly in monasteries, where monks wrote them out by hand. Obvously, books were therefore a scarce resource. While it might take someone a year to hand copy a Bible, with the Gutenberg press it was possible to create several hundred copies a year, with two or three people that could read, and a few people to support the effort. Each sheet still had to be fed manually, which limited the reproduction speed, and the type had to be set manually for each page, which limited the number of different pages created per day. Books produced in this period, between the first work of Johann Gutenberg and the year 1500, are collectively referred to as incunabula.
Gutenberg's findings not only allowed a much broader audience to read Martin Luther's German translation of Bible, it also helped spread Luther's other writings, greatly accelerating the pace of Protestant Reformation.
In China, there were no texts similar to the Bible which could guarantee a printer return on the high capital investment of a printing press, and so the primary form of printing was wood block printing which was more suited for short runs of texts for which the return was uncertain.
While the Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying, the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the steam powered rotary press allowed thousands of copies of a page in a single day. Mass production of printed works flourished after the transition to rolled paper, as continuous feed allowed the presses to run at a much faster pace.
Later inventions in this field include:
- The offset printing press
- Desktop publishing
- Electronic publishing (on CD-ROM or online)
- Computer printer