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Part 3 History of Signs and Printing from Papyrus to Gutenberg

Ancient Signage

The world is full of signs and printing in the 21st century. Even in “3rd World” countries, there are lots of this telling you where to go shopping, what to buy, and telling you when you get there. And while most of us may give passing thought about them, that’s probably the extent of your thought on the subject.

Recapping the previous two articles on this history series, we’ve now covered what signage and print pressing were used for and the standard media that displays were made of – wood – up through electrical and neon in the past 100 years or so, Hopefully this is somewhat interesting – it must be or you wouldn’t be reading this! – and you’re getting some interesting info.

Signs and Printing – From Papyrus to Gutenberg to the Rotary Press (ca. 1847)

Around 3000 BC or so, the Mesopotamians created cylinder seals that had alphabet characters on them for impressing the letters into clay tablets. Many of these beautiful tablets still survive to this day. The Chinese and the Egyptians used stamps and blocks to print various images, while in Egypt, Europe, and India, prints on cloth and papyrus were created instead of on clay tablets. This was one of the first advancements that would eventually revolutionize signs and printing.

Signs and Printing - the Gutenberg Press In the 1400’s or earlier, Europe shifted from imprinting on cloth to paper, though initially blocks were still used even on paper. However, in 1439, a German by the name of Johannes Gutenberg created the first commercially viable movable type.

While movable type is generally ascribed to Gutenberg, the Chinese had developed it as early as the 11th century, and the Koreans in the 13th century. While Gutenberg gets the glory for “creating” movable type in Europe, it is likely that it was being simultaneously developed all over Europe by others as well. Regardless, in 1455, Gutenberg printed what is known as the Gutenberg Bible, and suddenly printing of books exploded in Europe, paving the way for the Renaissance and the increase of knowledge and wealth in the West.

What is not typically known about Gutenberg, though, is that he made improvements in the type metals which affected the quality of the print, and also invented oil-based inks which replaced the less durable water-based inks that had been used previously. He also introduced colored inks. The production process wouldn’t be where it is today without color inks!

Birth of Press Trade after Gutenberg

Printing as a profession spread rapidly throughout Europe in the 16th century, and by 1539, the first printing press was set up in North America in Mexico City by an enterprising Italian, Juan Pablos. It took another 100 years before a printing press was brought to Boston by Elizabeth Glover, whose husband died on the voyage the press was on. She established the publishing house still known as The Cambridge Press.

signs and printing The printing press remained essentially the same with minor improvements until the early 1800’s when Friedrich Koenig invented the steam-powered press. Up until this time all presses were manually operated, and the top speeds were around 250 pages per hour. This further revolutionized the said industry.

The next improvement was the rotary press, invented about 1847 by R.M. Hoe and improved on in 1863 by William Bullock. The rotary press allowed rolls of paper, plastic, or cardboard to be printed continuously and made high speed high output printing possible. This type is still in use today in many industries.

To continue reading the history of signs and printing, find PART 4 here.


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Barry K. Brown

Barry Brown has been in the Sign, Banner, Decal and Display Business for over 20 years. It isn't what he thought he'd do with his life, but he says he knows too much now to do anything else!

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