Essay, Research Paper: Printing Press History


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In the early 1450's rapid cultural change in Europe fueled a growing need for
the rapid and cheap production of written documents. Johannes Gutenberg, a
goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany,
borrowed money to develop a technology that could address this serious economic
bottleneck. Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing
press that used movable metal type. Gutenberg developed his press by combining
features of existing technologies: textile, papermaking and wine presses.
Perhaps his most significant innovation, however, was the efficient molding and
casting of movable metal type. Each letter was carved into the end of a steel
punch which was then hammered into a copper blank. The copper impression was
inserted into a mold and a molten alloy made of lead, antimony and bismuth was
poured in. The alloy cooled quickly and the resulting reverse image of the
letter attached to a lead base could be handled in minutes. In 1476, William
Caxton set up England's first printing press. Caxton had been a prolific
translator and found the printing press to be a marvelous way to amplify his
mission of promoting popular literature. Caxton printed and distributed a
variety of widely appealing narrative titles including the first popular edition
of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Caxton was an enthusiastic editor and he
determined the diction, spelling and usage for all the books he printed. He
realized that English suffered from so much regional variation that many people
couldn't communicate with others from their own country. Caxton's contributions
as an editor and printer won him a good portion of the credit for standardizing
the English language. The printing press encouraged the pursuit of personal
privacy. Less expensive and more portable books lent themselves to solitary and
silent reading. This orientation to privacy was part of an emphasis on
individual rights and freedoms that print helped to develop. Print facilitated a
focus on fixed, verifiable truth, and on the human ability and right to choose
one's own intellectual path. In the early 1800's the development of continuous
rolls of paper, a steam-powered press and a way to use iron instead of wood for
building presses all added to the efficiency of printing. A number of dramatic
technological innovations have since added a great deal of character and
dimension to the place of print in culture. Linotype was introduced in 1884 and
marked a significant leap in production speed. The typewriter made the
production and "look" of standardized print much more widely
accessible. The process of setting type continued to go through radical
transformations with the development of photo-mechanical composition, cathode
ray tubes and laser technologies. The Xerox machine made a means of
disseminating print documents available to everyone. Word processing transformed
editing and contributed dramatic new flexibility to the writing process.
Computer printing has already moved through several stages of innovation, from
the first daisy-wheel and dot matrix "impact" printers to common use
of the non-impact printers: ink-jet, laser and thermal-transfer. Both the
Internet and interactive multimedia are providing ways of employing the printed
word that add new possibilities to print's role in culture. The printed word is
now used for real-time social interaction and for individualized navigation
through interactive documents. It is difficult to gauge the social and cultural
impact of new media without historical distance, but these innovations will most
likely prove to signal another major transformation in the use, influence and
character of human communication.
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