We thought we’d share our take on a history of printing in graphical format. We appreciate it may not be a David Starkey chronicle, but it’s a bit of fun. Maybe you can suggest some missing entries…

History of Printing Infographic

A Brief History of Printing

From the ancient Chinese using inks on carved wooden blocks to the latest Xerox digital print presses, the history of printing has been dominated by technology and the use of new materials. Even now, at 21st century printers, such technical innovations and advancements continue to be made. The ultimate goal of printing has always been the creation of a high quality product that’s as cheap as possible to manufacture and distribute. Today’s twist is that the commercial printer also has to be environmentally friendly – and rightly so too. Checkout our infographic for a fun illustration of the history of printing.

While the ancient world happily used the likes of clay, animal skin and papyrus scrolls to pass on important information, along with the odd rude drawing or joke, it was Johannes Gutenberg’s marvellously clever invention in the 1450s that changed our world forever. His revolutionary printing press, featuring mechanical moveable type, was the world’s first mass-production manufacturing machine. Thanks to Gutenberg’s print shop in Mainz, Germany, The Bible quickly became the No.1 blockbuster of the Middle Ages. Although we’re sure Black Death For Dummies could have been a best-seller too, if only those medieval marketing folk had discovered those pesky fleas in their ye olde office just a little earlier.

Ancient books to modern newspapers

Not that the Germans had a monopoly on printing back in the day. London’s very own William Caxton printed the first book to be published in English, ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’, in 1473.

By the early 1600s, printing presses – like the plague and revolutionary fervour – had spread to cities across Europe, and were capable of producing 3,600 pages per day. The city of Strasbourg was even publishing what’s widely recognised as the world’s first newspaper, the rather snappily titled ‘Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien’.

The Industrial Revolution made its own technological contribution to the printing process, of course. In 1814, Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer sold their new steam powered printing press – capable of producing 1,000 page impressions per hour – to The Times newspaper in London. Their company Koenig & Bauer is still one of the leading makers of printing presses to this day.

One printing machinery development of particular interest to Solopress, as we flicked through the history books to research this blog and infographic, were the small jobbing presses invented in the middle of the 19th century. These machines were quick to set up and capable of printing business cards, letterheads and envelopes. The jobber is still used by letterpress printers today for high-end prints like wedding invitations with an antique effect.

Colour lithography, the method that we still successfully employ at Solopress to rapidly produce our premium quality printing, became popular from the 1890s onwards thanks to the support of celebrated artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Picasso. So your leaflets, postcards and posters are in very distinguished company! By comparison to the others we’ve already mentioned, state-of-the-art high quality printing presses – such as the six colour Heidelberg Speedmaster SM74 sheetfed offset printing press used at Solopress – boast a hefty production speed of up to 15,000 sheets per hour. Such awesome printing power doesn’t come cheap though, as each one of these babies costs a cool £700,000 to buy – let alone run 24-hours a day.

Like everything else in the later part of 20th century, computers have also played a major role in the development of both commercial printing and consumer desktop publishing. Xerox pioneered the use of office photocopying back in the 1960s, but their newest iGen4 digital colour press, for example, gives commercial printers an unprecedented host of prepress and finishing capabilities and choices to offer any customer. Although for all the print purists out there, any high-tech digital solution available right now still doesn’t match the look, feel and smell of the ageless lithographic printing process.

Printing still has an important role to play in our everyday lives – even in this digital age of the iPad and Kindle e-Reader – especially when it comes to a quick, affordable and effective way to promote your business or event.

Author: Rik Haynes

Are you passionate about graphic design? My Google+ page at https://google.com/+RikHaynes is updated daily with the latest design news, free tutorials and inspirational work from the world's best web and print designers.


  1. I learned about most of these processes in college, but I started my print career properly in a backstreet printers, supposedly in origination, but I “trained” (or rather, was used as cheap labour) in all areas of the company. They actually still had a letterpress machine in the corner behind the single and two colour litho GTO’s. That makes me sound really old – I’m not, this was in 1998. No wonder they went bust! Thank God I work for myself and can hand all my printing over to Solopress now to sort out for me!

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