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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

All hail Gutenberg and his printing press!

The printing revolution in Europe began with the invention of moveable type in a way that caught on culturally due to its ability to be monetized and replicated by other innovators. Moveable type in this sense means the fabrication from metal of letters, punctuation, and other individual components of grammar in a way that allowed the type to be arranged and rearranged into textual compositions. The compositions of metal type were then inked and a moist piece of paper or parchment pressed down on it, allowing multiple copies of a single work to be produced in a time period significantly shorter than that which hand-copying required. Since the Bible or its parts were the most common manuscript, it makes sense Gutenberg's first landmark work using moveable type was a Bible: previously it took a year or more to copy a whole Bible; with Gutenberg's press and moveable type, multiple copies could be printed within weeks.

The period of handpress printing begins with incunables (a term meaning the earliest stage of printing with moveable type) in the mid 1450s and continues on for 500 years.

To fully consider this technology, one must consider the work of the punch-cutter, that is, the engraver of the type. These types were all fashioned by hand, which took an extraordinary amount of dexterity, craft, and skill. See below for videos on punchcutting and handpress printing.

While this technology was pioneered in Germany, it was perfected in Italy, specifically Venice. Aldus Manutius is an important Italian printer who invented italics (hence the derivative of the word being Italy). Ludovico Arrighi was a contemporary of Manutius who started using italics around the same time. 

If you have an hour to spare...

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 SpecialCollections@scu.edu to arrange an appointment.

Resources not at SCU