Thursday, 30 January 2014

Session 9: Printing and Books

The earliest printed book, a scroll, was made in China in around 860 CE, and was called the Diamond Sutra. (It can be seen in the British Museum).  It was printed using 'block printing'.

(the Diamond Sutra)

Block printing involved carving text and pictures in reverse onto a block of wood. The block was coated with ink and then a piece of paper was pressed over it.

Although block printing had been invented, in the early middle ages most books were individually handwritten. One of the main reasons for producing books was to make copies of religious scriptures. In Arab countries, scribes wrote out copies of the Qu'ran, and in Europe monasteries had their own 'Scriptorium', a room where monks copied out and illustrated the Bible. Handwritten books took a long time to produce and were expensive to buy. Although block printing increased the speed of the process, it was still very inefficient. Blocks that had text carved in them could not be reused for a different book.

In the 11th century CE the Chinese invented 'movable type'. With movable type, each letter is carved on a block. The letters are placed in a frame and can be moved around to form different words and sentences. The advantage of movable letter blocks is that they could be used again and again in different combinations.

The tradition of carving wooden movable type is still preserved in some areas of China:

One of the first people reputed to have used modern movable type in Europe was the German, Johannes Gutenberg, in about 1436. Gutenberg invented a wooden printing press, having got the idea from the presses used to crush grapes and make wine.

[If you want to find out more about the printing press, look on Youtube for the hour-long program by Stephen Fry (titled 'the Machine That Made Us')  It's been a while since I've watched it, so parental previewing might be appropriate.]

In 1455 Gutenberg produced the first printed Bible in the world. It became became known as the Gutenberg Bible. He printed over 150 copies and it took several years to complete.

William Caxton was the first person to print a book in English, in 1475. He set up a printing shop in London and produced a famous edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The text was printed using metal movable letters, known as 'type'.

Arranging type to form words and pages is called 'typesetting'. At first this was done by hand, by compositors. Using movable type meant any errors could be corrected.

                                                                    (movable type)

Printing wasn't just used to produce books. The first newspapers were printed in Germany and Holland in the 17th century. Hand presses were gradually replaced by steam powered presses in the 19th century, and then by rotary presses.

(A steam press from the 1800s)

A quirky little video about letterpress, showing how much work goes into producing a print with an old press.


Today most printing of books is done 'digitally' by computer. There has also been a huge growth in ebooks  . These are books that are not printed, but downloaded electronically and then displayed on an electronic device such as a computer or tablet.

If you ever get a chance it's worth visiting the Oxford University Press museum  (you will need to book ahead). It has a selection of old printing machines as well as the type used to print 'the long tale' in the book Alice in Wonderland. (if you don't know this part of the book, take a look at page 26 of this PDF ). You can also find old printing presses at The Story Museum in Oxford, where they hold a variety of hand printing workshops.

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