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Printing Techniques Through the Years

In Europe and America, the period of 1890-1900 was marked by poster frenzy. The poster was not only a new advertising form, but also a new art form. Posters were adorning romantic Paris boulevards, tiny calm streets of Belgium and Holland, solemn London squares, shop windows of America and even middle class bedrooms.

The history of printing is long and interesting from first images sketched on the cave walls by an early man to modern digital printing technologies. The first method of printing appeared in ancient China and dates back to the end of the 2nd century. For printing text, images or patterns, a reversed image was carved in a piece of wood and then inked up. Paper was pressed down on top of it to transfer the ink and the image. Known as woodblock printing, this method with a long history was popular both in Europe and Asia. Development of print methods came with the invention of paper in China. The Chinese also knew how to engrave text on different surfaces. In the 8th century Chinese prisoners described the process to their Arab captors. The secrets of the Chinese craft passed to the Arabs and were revealed to Europe only in the 12th and 13th centuries. Although European innovations came later, the Chinese certainly felt the impact of printing less dramatically than the Europeans did.

During the 9th-10th centuries, after an introduction of woodblock printing to the Islamic world, a unique type of block printing was developed in Egypt. Print blocks were made from metals (tin, lead, cast iron) or stone, glass, and clay. Metal and other non-wooden forms of block printing were unknown in China, so the technique had very little influence outside the Muslim world. Europe knew nothing of metal block printing, too. Instead, metal movable type printing appeared here later. With the introduction of movable type printing in China, block printing gradually vanished from Islamic Central Asia.

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The first known movable type system from porcelain was created by Bi Sheng from China about 1040. Metal movable types were invented much later in Korea. Movable system uses metal type pieces casted from matrices, which were created manually by punch cutters. Metal pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform. Movable type page-setting was more efficient and durable compared to woodblock printing.

The first movable type system was invented in China. But its main elements, forming the base of modern printing, gradually appeared in Medieval Western Europe. Cultural and economical conditions in the region offered a favourable ground for it.

It is traditionally considered that European movable type printing technology was developed by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, around 1440. And in just over a decade the European age of printing began. As a goldsmith, Gutenberg used his knowledge of metals. He also introduced an oil-based ink which was more durable than water-based solutions used previously. Gutenberg was the first to make an alloy type from lead, tin, and antimony. It proved to be more suitable for printing than clay, wooden or bronze types used in East Asia. However, his most significant innovation was efficient molding and casting of movable metal types. The width of the lead base varied to suit the letter size emphasizing visual impact of words.

A combination of movable metal type pieces, matrices and lead was only one of important elements demanded for European printing technology. Another element was the printing press, an idea which had never occurred before. The invention of the printing press revolutionized communication and book production, added greatly to the spread of knowledge and changed the way of mass communications. Very quickly, printing spread from Germany all over Europe. Gutenberg's press had no rivals in the publishing sphere. His movable type printing is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.

In 1796, Alois Senefelder from Bavaria introduced a method of printing on smooth surfaces, known as lithography. The printing technology uses chemical processes to create an image. Although lithography was a huge step in printing development, it was too time-consuming and expensive at first. But after a French artisan Jules Cheret had introduced his "three stone lithographic process", which made possible to combine colours and texture with images and text, existing lithographic techniques were improved. Chromolithography is another printing method stemmed from lithography. It was the first technology for true multicoloured prints. It replaced manually coloured prints and offered a way to get replicas of real paintings. In the 1870s another method of printing was invented " offset, often called offset lithography. Here the inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, and then to the printed surface.

Print technology by Gutenberg continued virtually unchanged until the 19th century. Hand-set type and pressing were soon replaced by steam power making the printing process more efficient and productive.

The 20th century brought electric printing technologies and equipment, typewriters and photocopiers were developed, paving the way for digital printing processes. The first laser printer, a modified xerographic copier, was invented by Gary Starkweather from Xerox in 1969. Over the years, different types of printers were developed and modernised.

In the 1980's, daisy wheel printers dominated the market. They were generally slow, printed only characters and symbols without graphics. At present daisy wheel printers are obsolete. They were replaced by dot matrix printers for computers, with a print head that runs back and forth on the page and prints by impact, striking an ink-soaked cloth ribbon against the paper. Letters were formed by dot matrix, so different fonts and some graphics could be produced.

For now, inkjet printers are most popular devices for home and small offices due to their reasonable cost and good printing quality. Inkjet printers spray tiny droplets of liquid ink onto paper.

At present, a wide range of printers is available based on different technologies. Modern multipurpose printers offer a number of functions to serve varied needs.