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The Early History of Printing

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For more than 5000 years the duplication of images or printing has played a major part in the cultural evolution of the human race. It has helped to spread education, literacy, religion and a love of the arts around the world in countless countries, some of which are no longer around today…

The First Printers

The first printer in the world can be traced back to Mesopotamia 3000 years before Christ and they used a “cylinder seal” system for rolling impressions onto clay tablets. This was the original form of printing and was used extensively in the area before the invention of paper. At about the same time in Egypt, Europe, China and India printing on cloth or silk was already in use, but this was not used for writing purposes although it is speculated that ancient forms of poster printing also utilised this process.

The Earliest Forms of “Modern Printing”

The earliest form of what is now seen as “modern printing” can be traced back to East Asia and was called block printing. It was primarily used to print on textiles, but thanks to the influence of Buddhism this same process was later also used on paper. The earliest wood block printed fragments ever found are from China and consist of printed flowers in 3 colours. These images were printed on silk sometime in 220BC during the Han Dynasty.

Did You Know?

The technology of printing on paper instead of on cloth or silk was first developed in China under the influence of Buddhism. This was because Buddhist religious leaders had created a mandated that stipulated that there would be the circulation of standard religious texts over a wide area and in a number of translations. The printing on paper helped with the production of more of these texts over a shorter period of time. The oldest known printed book is the Diamond Sutra, which was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva sometime during the fifth century. The book in fact carries an actual date on it that states it was printed on ‘the 13th day of the fourth moon of the ninth year of the Xiantong era’ (some time around 11 May 868).

Block Printing in Europe

By 1300 block printing on cloth was very popular in Christian Europe where images for religious purposes were often created that were both large and very elaborate. By 1400 paper was more freely available and this medium of printing was fast transferred to printing smaller woodcut religious images and even playing cards. By mid 1400 wood cut “block books” with both text and images (usually carved from the same block) began to emerge as a cheaper printing option to manuscript writing. The 2 most common books at this time that were in print were the Ars moriendi and the Biblia pauperum.

The author works in the printing trade and is an amateur history buff with an interest in ancient printing history. He currently resides in South Africa and works for a printing company in Cape Town who are experts when it comes to brochures printing.


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  • Posted On October 21, 2011
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