The invention of the typographic printing press, in 1440, the work of the German Johannes Gutenberg, triggered a revolution in the dissemination of culture and the beginning of the printing industry.
The origins of the printing press can be traced back to China almost 500 years earlier when movable wooden types were already in use. However, the breakthrough attributed to Gutenberg was the assembly of single letters and the adaptation of a grape press for printing sheets of paper. He is considered the father of typography. His technique of individual types, which could be combined at the printer’s will, gave an unexpected boost to book printing.
These are the key elements in typographic printing:
- The plate formed by the pieces or types engraved with the reliefs to be printed.
- The ink with which the types are soaked.
- The print substrate, where the design is transferred by pressure.
The gaps between the pieces are the non-printable surface.
The technical principle on which typographic printing is based is very simple: the substrate is placed between two plates, and when the necessary pressure is exerted, the inked relief is printed on it.
Gutenberg and his contemporary printers used metal plates made of lead and wood types. In fact, printing plates can be made from a wide variety of materials, as long as they are able to withstand the pressure required for the transfer of text and images. Nowadays, they can be made of photopolymers, wood, magnesium-impregnated metal, among other options.
What models of typographic presses are available?
Typographic presses come in three main types:
Flatbed: this is what the original presses were like. Both the plate with the type composition and the substrate are placed on flat surfaces known as platen and tympan. The plate is inked either by hand or by a system of cylinders that run across the plate before each printing.
Plano-cylindrical: the substrate is coupled to a cylinder that runs over the plate, which is placed on a static flat surface. They allow more freedom of movement than flatbed machines, in addition to the cutting and finishing process.
Cylinder presses: the plate is placed on a cylindrical surface, while the substrate is pressurised by the printing cylinder. They can be sheetfed machines, which print one sheet at a time; or rotary machines, in which the paper is supplied by a continuous reel. They provide faster, double-colour printing.
How were the types made?
This element, which lends its name to the printing system that changed forever the way culture was disseminated, is a small piece of metal that was originally made by the smelter from tin, lead and antimony. He poured the alloy into moulds prepared for each letter or character, and if he was particularly skilled, he could create some 4,000 types a day.
In the old days, preparing the printing plate was a real work of craftsmanship, since it could be made up of thousands of parts, so the operation had to be carried out by trained staff. Until well into the 20th century, typographic printing continued to be the dominant printing system, until the arrival of the technological development of offset lithography displaced it from industrial printing and from then on it was reserved for craftsmanship.