From a good screw in Rome to the printing habits of monks

For those printers who enjoy a glass of wine before they settle down after a long day in the print room they will be gladdened to know these choice pleasure gave birth to the printing industry and printing presses in general.

Back in the Classical era thousands of years ago during the Roman Empire, a screw press was adapted for the crushing of grapes in order to make wine. Shaped like a cider press and turned by hand the downward force of the press gave an even amount of pressure over an area of a square metre or so – squeezing out the liquid.

A similar principle was developed in the medieval era by monks to create block printing where engraved wooden blocks were pressed onto paper and parchment basic wooded decorations and illustrations. These blocks including decorative letters pressed into the corner of a page allowing the scribe to write in the rest of the script by hand.

In China block printing was well established with a form of movable type in use before Europe was to embrace Gutenburg’s invention in the 15th century. However due to the complexity of the Chinese court language it did not spread the way it did with revolutionary speed in Europe. Whereas Western alphabets used around 26 letters, the Chinese constructed their written language using thousands of characters.

The first printing press in the modern era was created by the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 in the Holy Roman Empire German towns of Mainz and Strasbourg. Gutenberg made several innovations which combined to create the first modern printing presses.

He first harnessed the technology of the printing press used to print onto textiles which had derived from the wine press. A central screw was pressed down onto a sheet of material onto a wooden block leaving a pattern on the material. By replacing the wooden block with a metal frame containing movable type locked together by keys and space bars made of lead, and swapping the material for paper, an impression of a single page could be made in moments as opposed to hours if the page was written by hand.

The movable type was also the other key ingredient in Gutenberg’s invention. As a goldsmith he was familiar with the properties of a variety of metals including alloys or combinations of base metals. Using a die, he manufactured the 26 characters of the alphabet into a type style along with all the other symbols and points of grammar required. Assembled into cases with little boxes for each character, a type setter could quickly put together a still of type and add it to the block ready for pressing on the stone.

The third innovation of Gutenberg was an oil-based ink made of soot and walnut oil which didn’t fade compared to the water-based inks.

He quickly began to print books and pamphlets transforming society in an age of ideas and innovations in the late 15th century, but his press remained mainly unchanged in design for at least 300 years – a remarkable achievement.

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