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History of Printing Technology

Selection of Archives & Special Collections materials that illustrate the history of printing technology. Originally created for Professor Aoki's ARTS 36 class.

Overview of Era

Early Writing & Media

Physically recording information began as early as 8000 BCE because societies developed the need to write about things, predominantly record keeping in relation to economic activities like trading livestock and other property. People in early civilizations used moist clay imprinted with shapes and formed into specific shapes, as seen below in the example of clay tokens and clay envelope, or moist clay imprinted with a stylus with a wedge for a tip, which we now regard as cuneiform. As time went on, texts evolved to include treatises on astronomy and literature, for example the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written on cuneiform tablets as early as 2100 BCE.

The precursor to the codex (bound books) as we now know it were wax tablets, which had holes bored in them in order to be strung together, commonly used in ancient Rome, and papyrus scrolls that could be wound up and carried easily, commonly used in ancient in Egypt and across the Mediterranean. Both could be written on, erased, and written on again: wax tablets were left in the sun for the surfaces to melt and become smooth again or smoothed over with the flat end of the stylus before the pointed tip scratched forms into the solid wax, while papyrus could be wiped cleaned and then written on again with a brush and ink. Papyrus scrolls gave way to accordion folded or concertina works, which were easier to consult by folding and unfolding sections than unrolling and rolling a scroll (although some scrolls had a mechanism to reroll). Papyrus was expensive and only available to the wealthy, and broke apart when folded. For this reason, parchment and vellum--made from soaked, stretched, dried, and scraped cow, goat, or sheep skin--soon came to replace papyrus in the 2nd century AD, and with it, the ability to bind the leaves of parchment into a codex. Many of the discoveries made with the Dead Sea Scrolls were written on parchment.

Meanwhile, in China, Cai Lun invented paper as early as the 1st or 2nd century AD and printing with woodblocks was not far off from then. The Diamond Sutra, a scroll of seventeen pasted-together sheets of paper measuring 16 feet in length, is the oldest dated and printed work in the world, being dated May 11, 868, but the cache of documents found at Dunhuang suggest the use of paper, scrolls, and printing predates even the Diamond Sutra.

In the wake of the rebus principle in action at Serabit el Khadim around 2100–1500 BCE in where hieroglyphs began to be used phonetically as letters, the alphabet and its sounds then took the leap from the Phoenicians in Canaan to the Greek and Roman empire. It is here we see Roman Capitals inscribed in stone from the 1st to 4th century. In India, at the same time around the 4th century CE, the inscription on the Iron Pillar of Delhi was carved into iron. The pillar is now located in the historic site of the Qutab Minar in Delhi, but is thought to have been moved there from outside the Udayagiri Caves, and is unique for the rust resistant iron material it is made out of, expanding our understanding of early systems of writing and media.

SCU Library Resources

The following items are available to consult in the Archives & Special Collections reading room on the 3rd floor of the library. Email to arrange an appointment.

Resources not at SCU

Clay Tokens

Globular envelope with a cluster of accounting tokens. Clay, Uruk period.

Clay tokens and clay envelopes were used as an accounting writing device from ca. 8000 - 1500 BCE. The exchange of property or other goods was recorded by depositing token(s) into the clay envelope, and later the user would stamp the tokens on the moist clay ball rather than depositing them inside.

Image at right is a globular envelope with a cluster of accounting tokens. Clay, Uruk period. From the Tell of the Acropolis in Susa. It is available on Wikimedia Commons. The image below shows A Clay accounting ball with calculi, counters, and the evolution of cuneiform - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Image By Daderot - Own work, CC0

Clay accounting ball with calculi, counters, and evolution of cuneiform - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Image By Daderot - Own work, CC0








Cuneiform Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Flood Myth 

The Flood Tablet dates from the 7th Century BCE and is held in the British Museum. From their site:

Neo-Assyrian clay tablet. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood. Known as the "Flood Tablet" From the Library of Ashurbanipal, 7th century BC.This object is the single most famous cuneiform text and caused a sensation when its content was first read in the 19th century because of its similarity to the Flood story in the Book of Genesis. Baked clay tablet inscribed with the Babylonian account of the Flood.

It is the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh and tells how the gods determined to send a flood to destroy the earth, but one of them, Ea, revealed the plan to Utu-napishtim whom he instructed to make a boat in which to save himself and his family. He orders him to take into it birds and beasts of all kinds. Utu-napishtim obeyed and when all were aboard and the door shut the rains descended and all the rest of mankind perished. After six days the waters abated and the ship grounded. The first bird released "flew to and fro but found no resting-place". A swallow likewise returned but finally a raven which had been sent out did not return showing that the waters were receding. Utu-napishtim, who later told this story to Gilgamesh, thereupon emerged and sacrificed to the gods who, angry at his escape, granted him on the intercession of Ea divine honours and a dwelling place at the mouth of the river Euphrates.

Iron Pillar of Delhi

Located in the Qutab Minar in Delhi, India dating from the 5th century CE.

Photo of the Iron Pillar of Delhi. Photograph of the plaque of the translation and transcription of the Iron Pillar, also in the Qutab Minar.

Read more about the Iron Pillar of Delhi on Wikipedia, which provides the transcription and translation of the text. Photographs by Kelci Baughman McDowell.

Egyptian Writing Board

2nd Century BCE

Read more information on the Met website, or on Open Culture


Wax Tablets

The Romans devised a clever composing contraption: a tablet of wax nestled into a wooden frame. The wax was carved into with a tool that had a stylus on one end and a burnisher on the other, the latter allowing the user to smooth over or erase text. The tablets could also be left in the sun to melt and could then be used again.

Wax Diptycha, or writing tablets, forming a schoolboy's exercise-book. Image courtesy of the British Library, Add MS 34186. The tablet contains two lines, written neatly above as a model and then copied twice between the ruled lines; the first line, and possibly the second, are from the poet Menander. Holes bored for binding tablets together can be seen in the frame. Originally published/produced in 2nd century?.

The Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra is the oldest dated printed book in the world: 868 AD. Each section was printed using a carved wood block, which lets us know there were many copies of the Sutra. As part of the International Dunhuang Project, hosted by the British Library, there are digital surrogates of the work available online, as well as scholarship and YouTube videos about its significance and conservation.