Celebrating the Craft of Print

Five Millennia from Cuneiform to CAD

by Colby Libraries — Posted on May 17, 2019


The ability to reproduce texts and images has been fundamental in the progression of humankind. The history of print is often told through a Western lens- beginning with the "invention" of printing in Europe by Gutenberg in the mid fifteenth century. In truth, people have been developing new forms of printing to better circulate information locally and globally for millennia.

Historians have determined that various forms of printing have been utilized by mankind as early as 3500BC. The first known mode of printing was in ancient Babylonia. The Babylonians created a system where clay cylinders with engraved cuneiform etchings were rolled onto wet clay. The etchings left an imprint of the symbols on the clay once it hardened.

In the eras since, people across the globe have toiled away developing new technologies and procedures that have exponentially increased the ability to duplicate texts. Some of the most significant breakthroughs occurred in the Far East, thousands of years after the time of the Babylonians.


As early as the eighth century in China and Korea, book printing from carved wooden blocks was already a common practice. Through the method of relief printing, entire pages were carved onto wood and transferred to a readily available, rapidly produced surface - paper - which was invented in China centuries earlier. In fact, the first dated printed work still in existence is the Diamond Sutra, which was crafted in the year 868 in Dunhuang, China. It was discovered by Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu - over a thousand years after its creation - among the Dunhuang manuscripts.

The oldest print held by Colby Libraries' Special Collections is a page of the Tu Shih Kuan Chien (a Short Outline of History). It is a woodblock print produced in China during the Song Dynasty and is dated c. 1215. Additional information can be found here.

Across the sea, woodcut printing evolved. The Japanese school of art known as ukiyo-e arose during the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). Over time, ukiyo-e evolved and new tools were developed to speed up the process. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the technique was utilized to mass produce hand-scrolls and other prints. The printing process, a form of relief printing, was all done by hand and was very slow going.


Moving into the modern era, printing presses allowed publishers to begin mass-producing written works at a lower cost. Building on the prior practice of block printing, with inspiration from the moulding techniques of coin makers and the screw presses used to produce goods like olive oil, Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing press. This innovation spread throughout Europe in the 1400s and 1500s, with small refinements by succeeding generations of craftspeople.


Although Gutenberg is often credited with the invention of movable type, the production and assembly of separate and reusable characters was practiced in the East before the fourteenth century (despite the challenge of replicating languages with thousands of characters).

Gutenberg's contribution was a method of manufacturing type by casting letters from an adjustable mould, allowing for different letter widths, as well as the development of a printing press that enabled the production of multiple impressions.


Gutenberg's techniques traveled quickly, with print shops across the world adopting his methods over the following years. The speed and ease of the printing press allowed small publications to grow. Before long, using the letterpress became common practice.


As time progressed, standards formed to further increase printing efficiency. The dimensions of lead type, storage layouts, and mechanical features all saw normalization.


To print text using a letterpress, a compositor arranges wood or metal letters into the desired words. They then use furniture (small wooden blocks of various size) to hold the letters in place. The compositor locks the arrangement into a chase (frame) using a mechanism called a quoin. Printers then make copies of this finalized form on the press.


Letterpresses ruled the publishing process until the rise of the rotary press in 1843. These presses were initially hand operated, but once steam, and later gas, power was introduced they became incredibly fast and efficient. Rotary presses were often used for producing publications like newspapers where the emphasis was on volume and speed. Letterpress printing has continued to be used today mainly as an artistic form.


The 1900's brought with them huge leaps in printing production. Electronic copying became a particularly crucial invention, shooting printers into the new age. The ditto machine of the twenties allowed more copies of prints to be made than ever before. The introduction of xerography in the thirties helped save Disney animation. Inkjet printing in the early fifties became a way for color to be easily applied to newspapers across the globe.

Even today, new advancements and technologies are being created and adapted to progress the art and ease of printing. In fact, printing is becoming less focused on text as time progresses. Language in printed forms are being overshadowed by typed text and digital imagery. These days, most news and stories can be acquired with ease on any electronic device. That being said, versions of printing have always kept their relevance, even in today's technological world. In many ways, 3D printing is the next step in the evolution of print. With the use of computer-aided design (CAD), 3D printing is now a common practice in academic, scientific, and medical settings, giving new meaning to the benefits of print.

At Colby College, the Mule Works Innovation Lab's 3D printing studio gives students the opportunity to see their studies come to life. The Lab is being utilized in every discipline across campus. Students have printed miniature sculptures, animal models, mechanical objects, clothing, and replicas of priceless artifacts. With the innovations of 3D printing, the possibilities of what can be printed seem limitless.


Even with rapid technological developments, there are still many printing shops that have continued to use classic techniques. In the culturally rich city of Portland, Maine, there is a thriving print culture with shops across the city using traditional tools and methods. One such shop, Wolfe Editions, specializes in fine letterpress book production and printmaking. They also offer a Print Master Training Program.

With the ever evolving advancements in technology, there is no way to be certain about what changes to communication will come next. One thing is for certain: print will forever be one of the greatest instruments in the development of humankind.

Explore Portland Print Culture