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Gutenberg's Printing Press - 1440

Printing with movable type had existed in East Asia at least since 1377 when the Jikji, an abbreviated title of a Korean Buddhist document was printed in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, however, the invention had not spread to Europe where everything people read still had to be copied by hand or printed from wood blocks carved by hand. In about 1440, the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, developed a movable type. Gutenberg made separate pieces of metal type for each character to be printed. With movable type, a printer could quickly make many copies of a book. The same pieces of type could be used again and again, to print many different books.

Printing soon became the first means of mass communication. It put more knowledge in the hands of more people faster and more cheaply than ever before. As a result, reading and writing spread widely and rapidly.

The printing industry should not be confused with the publishing industry. Publishing is the process of assembling written information and graphics, and coordinating the production, distribution, and sale of the resulting product. Some publishers own their own printing equipment and do the actual printing of their products, as most daily newspapers do, however, most do not own printing equipment, rather they contract with a commercial printer to have their books, magazines, or papers printed.

Thus publishing could perhaps best be identified with knowledge harvesting, while printing would be the knowledge distribution.

Gutenberg's Grandchildren

Three inventions within a span of a couple of years revolutionized Gutenberg's printing press.

The first is Tolbert Lanston's 1884 monotype machine. Since Gutenberg, the metal letters that compose a printed page had to be picked by hand and then set into position. Tolbert's machine allows a person to type the text, which then prints out a perforated paper with patterns of holes that represent characters. This is then read by a second machine that reads the patterns and triggers brass letters to slide down from a bank into position on the printing plate.

A year later, Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the one-operator linotype machine, which fuses the individual letters into a solid line (slug) of molten lead. Working with an entire line of text, rather than scores of individual letters, is much faster and produces more legible type. In addition, the slugs could be melted down and reused. The first linotype machine printed the New York Tribune in 1886.

The same year Frederick Ives invented a way to reproduce photograph in print, called the halftone process — this involves a series of black and white dots, which like tiles in a mosaic, simulate a continuous image to the eye, with full ranges of gray.

This completed the second revolution after Gutenberg. Two other printing revolutions later occurred. The third revolution came about 80 years later (early 1960s) with the photo-typesetting process that creates type by exposing film onto photosensitive paper.

The fourth printing revolution occurred in the 1980s with digital printing, which made the desktop computer a printing press.

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Knauer, Kelly (editor). (2003). Great Inventions: Geniuses and Gizmos: Innovations in Our Time. New York: Time Inc.