As the Middle Ages in Europe winded down and the Renaissance was about to start, there were developments in the visual communication too. The early part of the Middle Ages saw documents made by hand. But by the Late Middle Ages and at the early stages of the Renaissance, there emerged a new technology that would revolutionize writing text – the printing press.
As its name suggests, a printing press is a machine that prints by applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium such as paper and sometimes other materials to transfer transferring the ink. The introduction of this technology was one of the most influential events in the second millennium, not only in the history of visual communication but also Western Civilization.
Before the printing press, writing was mainly done by hand. During the Middle Ages in Europe, this was the case when scribes made illuminated manuscripts. The earliest method that predated the printing press was rubbing cloth or paper over embossed text smeared with ink to transfer the text to it. This was called block printing. This method was thought to be invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty around 868 AD. The blocks where initially made of wood and the characters were carved on it. These wooden blocks would be organized in a panel that would be kept in place while the text is transferred on a desired medium.
The moveable type took printing text to the next level. Also invented in China around the 10th century, this replaced the panel of printing blocks with movable individual characters which can be used repeatedly. Instead of wood, clay was the material used to make these blocks because its texture is considered right because it did not absorb moisture and it cleaned up well to be used again.
By the 13th century, woodblock made a comeback in China, but the technology was more improved with the introduction of a revolving table for typesetters which makes the process more efficient and printing was faster.
Meanwhile in Europe…
While the Chinese were relatively comfortable with their printing technology, in Europe prior to Johannes Gutenberg, there were various techniques employed but lacked the refinement and efficiency of the technology used by the Chinese to make them widely accepted. The earliest form of printing device used was the screw press. This device was modeled after the wine press used to crush grapes in the winemaking process. The device itself was invented during the time of Ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages, it found another use in printing patterns in cloth. Seeing how it can print on cloth, this device was later retooled for printing paper. As for the text, the ones from handwritten manuscripts were the natural models for letterforms in systematized typography and the Germans came up with styles that would be used in other parts in Europe.
Johannes Gutenberg was widely credited to introducing the printing press to Europe. He sought a way to improve the printing process using the wine press to which he saw its potential for printing. In his printing press, Gutenberg’s design ensured the pressure exerted by the press on the paper was even and did not smear the paper. He introduced a movable table with a flat surface on which the sheets of paper could be changed efficiently.
Being someone who dabbled with metals, Gutenberg created his typefaces from a lead-based alloy still used today. He created a mold for these pieces called a matrix. He was initially assisted by Peter Schoffer who designed and cut these punches. He would then mass produce them. When he did his Bible, he had Hans Dunne, Gotz von Shlettstadt and Hans von Speyer help him with the making of the typefaces.
Although Gutenberg’s Bible was his most famous project, it was not his first. He had also printed other texts that have been lost in time. His Bible has been preserved and is a testament to the technology he created.
From Germany, it did not take long for the printing press to spread across Europe. In 1476, William Caxton printed the first books in England using a printing press. This was made possible by learning this technology while he was on the European continent. Since the printing press originated in Germany, the typefaces or letter styles which are known today as fonts, were Germanic in style. As printing spread elsewhere, typefaces were changed to suit local tastes. Caxton initially used the Batarde type but was soon abandoned in favor of something locals liked. Roman types were introduced in Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).
As far as Europe as concerned, the printing press was more than just a new technology of the time, it was a game-changer in the sense it contributed to a form of revolution that swept the Continent. This was evident in the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, as evidenced by the use of the printing press across Europe, Latin was slowly giving way to the vernacular. This underscored the decline of the powers of the Catholic Church and empowered European states who were beginning to discover their own identity.