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Letterpress printing in the 16th century

Letterpress printing is a mechanical process in which large numbers of fonts and images are reproduced on flat surfaces, usually made of paper (handmade paper). Up to its invention, the creation and handwritten reproduction of documents and books ( manuscripts ) was the profession of a small number of specialists, in Europe especially the educated monks and nuns in the scriptoria of the monasteries . In East Asia there were already printed works in the 8th century .

Modern letterpress with the interchangeable letters of a typeface in a printing press (type printing ), which enabled the flexible, relatively inexpensive and fast production of larger editions , was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century .

He initiated a democratization of the creation and dissemination of information - but also laid the foundations for a massive expansion of the state and church bureaucracy that tended to be hostile to freedom. Book printing made it possible for the first time to massively disseminate knowledge, news and opinions free of the control of the church and the authorities , which in the long term promoted great social upheavals - it was one of the driving forces behind the Renaissance and the Enlightenment , and played an important role Role in the rise of the bourgeoisie . The view that letterpress technology had a revolutionary effect is being questioned by recent research. State censorship of printed products and state prosecution of inconvenient journalists and printers were soon introduced as a control mechanism for the freedom that had been gained , the overcoming of which is now manifested in modern democracies as the principle of press freedom . (The word press has been in use since the middle of the 18th century for "totality of newspapers and magazines", after it previously meant "totality of printed matter". From the second half of the 18th century there is the term of freedom of the press).

History of printing

The technology of printing in Asia and Europe initially developed independently of each other. However, the Far Eastern tradition ended in the 19th century with the takeover of western printing presses, making this printing technology the only remaining line of development.

Formerly letterpress in Asia

On May 11, 868, the first printed version of the Diamond Sutra was produced in China by means of wood panel printing (also wood block printing). Each character was cut mirror-inverted into a wooden stick by removing the surrounding wood. Raised lines were created that were colored and rubbed off on paper and printed the desired text. This relief printing process of the classic letterpress was used in China until the end of the 19th century. Although the first written evidence of Chinese letterpress printing dates back to 1324, the Chinese blacksmith Bi Sheng invented movable ceramic printing stamps as early as 1040 .

In current UNESCO representations , the Korean Jikji is dated to July 1377. It would be “the oldest book in the world” printed with bronze letters. However, book printing with movable type was only used sporadically in the Far East, remained labor-intensive hand printing under the technical possibilities of the time and finally disappeared completely with the introduction of western printing technology in the 19th century.

Europe and Gutenberg

Modern letterpress - sculpture in memory of Johannes Gutenberg , the inventor of modern letterpress, during the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Spread of printing in the 15th century
The book printing revolution brought about a surge in European book production.

The invention of modern letterpress goes back to the Mainz goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg , who introduced a printing system operated as a manufactory from 1450 through the use of movable metal letters . His printing press made book printing possible and made the printed book a mass article that laid the foundations of today's knowledge society and made a decisive contribution to the development of the sciences. The key to his success was the technical maturity of the system after long phases of considerable setbacks and after high investments on credit and as equity investments, which cost Gutenberg the essential commercial success part of his efforts. His inventions offered the early printer-publishers some profit opportunities, even if many printers had considerable economic difficulties (large capital expenditure for the production of the metal lettering, the printing press and for the purchase of the paper supplies). Book printing has made books affordable to a wider public.

In terms of media and technology history, Gutenberg is today less recognized as a technical inventor than as a technically inspired businessman who tapped potential needs with considerable funds. This is because his 42-line Bible ( B42 ) as well as the Luther Bible, which after him was the breakthrough of these techniques, could have been reproduced in print without his invention of movable type, because the text did not change so quickly, so Solid, "engraved" (embossed) plates held out just as well or better than the bundles of individual, actually loose letters in the middle edition.

His calculations on the basis of too high expectations of the printability / productivity of his techniques (initially hardly any advantages over the monastery manuscript) were not to be fulfilled for a long time, which caused the financing to slide several times. The breakthrough to the large, inexpensive editions came after the introduction of solid printing plates ("mater-pater" process using casts from the typesetting ) in connection with the speed with which texts could be created by setting prefabricated letters.

From Mainz, Gutenberg's letterpress technology spread throughout Europe and the European colonies in the 15th and 16th centuries:

Mainz (Gutenberg Museum) is considered the first starting point for European book printing

While there were still seventeen printing locations in 1470, their number increased to 204 printing locations by 1490. By 1500 there were 252 printing locations, of which 62 were in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation . In the early days of printing, average print runs of 150 to 250 copies were achieved. About 77% of all incunabula appeared in Latin .

Initially books (Bibles, specialist literature and fiction), as well as smaller texts such as letters of indulgence , calendars , and donations were printed. The first printed work after the Bible was a bloodletting calendar made from its letters for 1457. In the course of time, large companies such as that of Anton Koberger in Nuremberg emerged. This employed up to 100 workers on 24 presses. In the 16th century, the printing of Martin Luther's writings made up almost a third of the total print run. Until the end of the 19th century, the method of setting by hand with movable type remained unchanged. Only with the introduction of practical typesetting machines (including the Linotype typesetting machine from 1886 ) did the previous typesetting process change, especially for newspapers and books. The lead typesetting machines also produced text for printing on current high-pressure printing machines. A combination of previous single letters (e.g. for headings) and typesetting machine text lines was possible without restriction.

In the Russian cultural area, printing was established by Ivan Fjodorow (1510–1583), who in 1563 printed an epistolarium in Russian.

In the 16th century,
Basel became one of the most important centers of European book printing, alongside Paris and Venice

The Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III. In 1727 İbrahim Müteferrika allowed the establishment of a printing house, but forbade the printing of religious writings from Islam . This ban was obeyed until 1803, with the result that the printing of Islamic - as opposed to Christian - scriptures did not gain momentum until 1817. This was mainly made possible by the invention of lithography by Aloys Senefelder , as it z. B. the Koran could be printed in handwriting. During this time several printing works were established in the Orient .

The advent of the printing press led to a restructuring of the workshops. Now skilled workers in various professions became necessary. A new kind of intellectual exchange became possible. The printer brought together all the work carried out. His area of ​​responsibility was raising money and the components needed for printing. He hired workers, surveyed the book market, and issued newsletters and leaflets. At the beginning, the printer also had to take care of the sale of his products, which the bookkeepers did later . A division of labor between the technical department and the finance department started early on.

Today, books are mostly printed using offset printing , rarely using gravure printing . The latter is mostly used for magazines and mail order catalogs . The latest process (as of 2007) is digital printing . While printing plates ( printing templates ) are still produced in offset printing , digital printing processes completely dispense with the production of printing templates. These techniques create the prerequisites for “ book-on-demand ”.

The renaissance of printing in the 21st century

Since the beginning of the 21st century, book printing has experienced a renaissance as an artistic form of expression and design medium for private and business printed matter. Primarily in small businesses, the setup of which is more like a studio than a craft business, designers and thus non-specialist technical means of book printing take up. Basically, two directions can be identified here: In one case, the focus is on typography using classic hot type . In the second case, only the technical equipment of the printing press is used. Here, the printing form is created digitally on photopolymer plates. Analogous to the American trend, the term letterpress is also used in this country for this new form.

Technique of the classical art of printing

Relief printer at the Gutenberg monument, Mainz

The types or letters required to operate the art of book printing are divided into various groups of Fraktur , Antiqua and italics with the associated punctuation and other characters (asterisks, paragraphs, etc.). The variety and richness of the types is extraordinary. They are differentiated according to their genre in bread and decorative fonts and according to their drawing in Gothic, Fraktur, sans serif fonts, etc. They are also differentiated according to their cone size, such as 8 points or 24 points. The fonts also include the exclusion , which are bits of metal without a typeface. These are about one-fifth lower than the actual types ( Spatien , quarter, thirds, half foursquare, foursquare , squares). They are used to separate the words, to fill in empty lines etc. Similar purposes are used by the bullet , metal plates of one to ten typographical point thickness and in standardized lengths at 54 point height, but often also of the entire width of the lines ( reglets ). You shoot through the line set, that is, you put the registers between the lines, which are then moved apart. The physical process of printing with individual letters can be referred to as the typographical cycle .

Form and filing of types

Each type has an indentation, the signature , on the front, in Finland and France on the back of its body , for immediate correct identification of the type. Since these notches are different for the different, but often very similar type genera, they also facilitate their differentiation. A jumble of types of different writing genres or different types of one and the same genus is called " onion fish ".

Intended for work and paper types are set in wooden flasks with about 116 subjects for fracture (German) and 125 for serif fonts, such as for Latin, English, French and others. The larger number of subjects is due to accent letters . The oriental languages ​​and the set of musical notes, mathematical and chemical formulas require boxes with even more subjects. The size of the compartments is adapted to the more or less frequent occurrence of the letters, and their position in the box also depends on it. The set case rests at about chest height on a desk-like frame, the set shelf , which is provided with compartments for inserting the boxes.

Use of types, setting

The typesetter stands in front of the shelf . In his left hand he holds the metal angle hook , which forms a kind of flat box open on two sides with an adjustable left side wall, into which the typesetter guides the types from the compartments with his right hand and arranges them in lines. The angle hook used to be made of wood and covered with metal. The manuscript is held by the manuscript holder, consisting of a wooden or metal stick (tenacle) with a kind of fork (divisorium). The holder with the text is easily visible for the typesetter on the type case. If a line is filled, it must be excluded, that is, it must have the width that corresponds exactly to the respective format and sit moderately firmly in the angle hook. This is achieved either by reducing the inter-word spaces in order to bring excess word parts into the space of the line, or by widening the inter-word spaces by adding exclusions. The good appearance and legibility of the sentence after printing depends to a large extent on the regularity and care with which this work is carried out. The line is proofread during the exclusion.

When the line is completed, the thin plate made of smooth metal, the setting line, which previously served as a base, is pulled out from underneath and placed over it and the setting is continued until the angle hook is filled with lines. These are then all lifted at once, i.e. H. lifted onto a ship . The ship is a right angled board or zinc plate with a raised edge on two or three sides. To lift out all the lines in the angle hook are evenly pressed together firmly with both hands and placed in a block on the ship until the number of lines required to form a column or page (column) or a package is reached. On the side and on their feet, he places an underlay consisting of squares or metal blocks the width of a page to achieve a more secure hold for the types. After completing the page, he wraps the whole thing around three times with a sturdy string, the column cord.

If the typesetter sets in book pages, he also has to provide them with a running title, which is called a dead person if he only consists of the page number, or a living person as soon as he contains a keyword or a brief statement of the page content.

If the sentence is well executed, the page must then be able to be handled as if it only consisted of one piece. The completed pages are either stored on paper layers (porte-pages) until the number required for a print sheet has been completed or immediately imposed on boards (set boards) or strikers and closing stones in a certain order corresponding to the sequence of the pages, where then wooden or Metal bars of the width that remain unprinted on the paper, the spaces necessary for binding (collar, cross and middle bar) are placed around the sides, the column cords are removed (the sides are "loosened") and the shapes are created using iron frames either with iron screws, Wooden wedges and inclined webs or even with specially constructed toothed webs and wedges etc. are closed, that is, fixed in such a way that the entire form, consisting of many thousands of letters, can be lifted up and placed in the press without a letter from the pages falls.

Wrapping and closing and the related sub-management of the production of a work are mostly done (with newspapers without exception) by specially entrusted, skilled typesetters, the "Metteurs en pages". This method of working, in which the typesetter only has to supply pieces of the smooth sentence, which are called packages and from which the name package composer comes, omitting all headings from fonts other than those used for typesetting, is called "mise en pages". The easier determination of the sequence of the finished sheets is achieved by adding a number to the right at the foot of the first and repeating the same number with asterisks at the foot of the third page, the signature. The first is often given a standard in small letters on the left side, which has to state the title and volume of a work in a few words. The indication of the signature with letters is out of custom in Germany, and the custodian, that is, the first word of the next one that was previously placed at the end of each page, has been dropped. The formats are named after the number of sheets a sheet contains after being folded : Folio , Quart , Octav , Duodec , Sedez , Octodec, etc. Today these terms are rarely used for the various book formats .

The printing process

The first imprint that is taken from the closed forms or from pages and packages in strings is the proof. In this, the corrector records the mistakes made by the typesetter. After they have been corrected, further proofs are made for authors and publishers. When corrections and changes have been made by the typesetter and permission has been given for printing , the correct position of the pages is checked and corrected. After the imprimatur has been issued , printing can take place. The form that contains the first and last page, i.e. the outer, first or straight printing form, is usually printed first (lifted in). The other is called the inner, secondary or reverse printing form. The printing takes place either in the hand press , in short press, in the accident machine or pedal press, or in the high-speed press .

The paper, with the exception of writing paper, is partially moistened for this purpose, i.e. drawn or sprayed in thicker or thinner layers through water, which makes it more flexible and more suitable for absorbing the printing ink, sometimes printed dry and, if the print is a finer, also satin finish . This gives him back the smoothness lost by the dampening. Nowadays, however, this is no longer necessary. Before printing, each form must be "trimmed", that is, all inequalities in the printout must be compensated for by adding or removing fine paper inlays, which is usually very time-consuming. In the case of fine illustration printing, high demands are placed on the skill of the printer or machine master when it comes to finishing , since even the finest woodcut cannot be fully shown without good finishing. In order to achieve a good print, you also need good rollers for rubbing and applying the color. Until 1940 they were cast in the book printing shops themselves either from a mixture of glue and syrup or from glycerine , sugar and gelatine , but after the increased availability of rubber there was no longer any need for this process. In general, soon after the invention of the high-speed press , the rollers displaced the balls of horsehair previously used for applying paint with a cover made of calf or dog leather .

The pressure in the press, which is usually operated by two people, is done by inserting the paper sheet by sheet, folding and laying down the frame and lid, retracting the cart by turning a crank, pulling the boy over, extending and laying out the printed sheet. All of this is done by one of the two printers, while the other rubs out the color and blackens the shape ("rolls on") as the paper is inserted and removed. The high-speed press takes care of all these operations, with the exception of loading, automatically. Most high-speed presses are laid out using a mechanical layout device. After finishing, the machine foreman only has to monitor the running of the machine, the uniformity of the inking and the quality of the print.

After printing

The printed sheets, if they are not newspapers or other work to be delivered immediately, are hung up to dry and then placed in smoothing presses in order to remove the unevenness of the paper that has arisen during printing.

After printing, to remove the printing ink, the typesetting forms are washed with a brush dipped in a hot lye and rinsed with pure water. If they cannot be kept for further printing, i.e. if they become a standing set, the typesetter receives them back for dismantling, filing or tidying up. He distributes the letters back into the appropriate box compartments, or only titles, headings, short lines, etc. are filed, but the sentence is "bound", that is, in handy pieces wound with column ropes and, when they are well dried, in paper beaten, labeled and kept in the magazine for later use. Worn types are sold as "stuff" to the type foundries for remoulding.

Gutenberg's role

Gutenberg's technical achievement consisted in developing a number of processes that made book printing possible in the first place:

Gutenberg's achievement also lies in the economic and social establishment of the printing press through the first mass reproduction of the Bible .

Significance of the letterpress

Book printing in the 15th century

The invention and establishment of letter printing formed a significant cultural and historical turning point that introduced profound changes in information processing. For Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, printing was a "revolution". There were only a few milestones that were considered to be comparably fundamental , such as the invention of language and orality , the invention of alphabetic writing and written culture, as well as the invention of the computer and digitization . The media theory derives from Gutenberg's performance from fundamental consequences. Eisenstein follows very early assessments - for example, Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum 1620: "No empire, no religion, no star had a greater influence on human affairs than printing, gunpowder and compass."

More recent historical works contradict this assessment. Martyn Lyons speaks of the "Gutenberg myth" and explicitly denies that Gutenberg's invention was revolutionary. According to the medievalist Hagen Keller, "despite the changes brought about by the printing press, the period from the 14th century to the middle of the 17th can be viewed as a relatively uniform phase in many respects", and the medievalist Michael Clanchy believes the seal is one “Just as important a step in the history of writing as Gutenberg's book printing” because the seal was the first to be a way of authenticating documents.

The printing press enabled the exact reproduction of knowledge in a previously unknown level. While books were previously manually copied into scriptoria , the human factor became replaceable. Typographical errors were also avoidable.

The authorship became important. It became important who had said or written something, what and how someone had phrased it precisely and when it was to be dated. Books became more attractive and structured, as the identification through page numbers ( pagination ), tables of contents , registers and title pages became established .

The reading was changing: While books were read aloud before (pre), it evolved into the present-day Still reading. General literacy began and initiated an educational revolution. That thinking changed in adaptation to the written form (linear and causal thinking). The methodology and science of new books sometimes even surpassed the comprehensible form of concepts, in figurative form, the metaphors. One could understand books without a mental picture form.

Knowledge became more widely available. Printed books were much cheaper than handwritten copies. Before the invention of printing, a manually made copy of the Platonic Dialogues in Venice cost 1 florin , but in 1483 a printer charged only 3 florins for 1,025 copies of the work. This drastic drop in prices led to a much higher circulation of fonts. According to Neil Postman's book The Disappearance of Childhood , literacy (called social literacy there) leads to a phase of childhood in which people develop from “no longer infants” to adults through learning (to read).

"More than the gold, the lead has changed the world and more than the lead in the shotgun has the lead in the case"

See also


  • JH Bachmann: New handbook of book printing . Voigt, Weimar 1876.
  • Joseph Benzing : The printing of the 16th century in the German-speaking area. A literature review. (= Central Journal for Libraries. Supplement 68). Otto Harrassowitz, Leipzig 1936 (list of around 1300 works).
  • Josef Benzing: The book printers of the 16th and 17th centuries in the German-speaking area. Wiesbaden 1963, 2nd verb. Edition ibid. 1982, new edition: Christoph Reske, Wiesbaden 2007, ISBN 978-3-447-05450-8 .
  • Matthias Buchert u. a .: Black art on green paths. Book production according to ecological principles . Steidl, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-88243-383-3 .
  • Karin Cieslik, Helge Perplies and Florian Schmid (eds.): Materiality and formation. Studies of book printing from the 15th to 17th centuries. Festschrift for Monika Unzeit. édition lumière, Bremen 2016, ISBN 978-3-943245-21-9
  • Michael Clanchy: “From Memory to Written Record. England 1066–1307. "Oxford 1994 (on the history of writing before printing)
  • Eberhard Dilba: Typography lexicon and reader for everyone. Books on Demand, 2nd edition, Norderstedt 2008, ISBN 978-3-8334-2522-6 .
  • Gerhard Dünnhaupt : The Princely Printing House in Koethen . Booksellers Association, Frankfurt / M. 1979 (AGB XX.4) ISBN 3-7657-0934-4 ( Wolfgang Ratke's first German textbook press ).
  • Elizabeth Eisenstein: The Printing Press. Cultural revolutions in early modern Europe . Springer, Vienna 1997, ISBN 3-211-82848-6 (for the historical determination of the book printing invention).
  • Heinrich Fischer: Instructions for the accident rate . Naumann, Leipzig 1893, 2nd increased edition.
  • Karl A. Franke: The art of printing. Practical manual for typesetters, printers, proofreaders, stereotypes and electroformer . Voigt, Leipzig 1904.
  • Ferdinand Geldner : Incunabulum. An introduction to the world of the earliest book printing. (= Elements of the book and library system. 5) Reichert, Wiesbaden 1978, ISBN 3-920153-60-X .
  • Michael Giesecke: Book Printing in the Early Modern Era . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / M. 1998, ISBN 3-518-28957-8 .
  • Marcel Hänggi: Chapter “Book”, In: “Stories of Progress. For a good use of technology ", Frankfurt am Main 2015, pp. 41 to 55 (to assess the importance of book printing in recent historical research)
  • Hagen Keller: “The development of European writing culture as reflected in medieval tradition. Observations and considerations. ”In: Paul Leidinger (Ed.):“ History and historical consciousness. ”Münster 1990. pp. 171–204.
  • Carl B. Lorck: The production of printing works. Practical hints for authors and booksellers . Weber, Leipzig 1893.
  • Martyn Lyons, "A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World." New York 2010.
  • Hans Lülfing : Johannes Gutenberg and the book system of the 14th and 15th centuries. Verlag Documentation, Munich 1969 (on the sociological and economic background to the invention of the printing press).
  • Walter G. Oschilewski : The book printer. Customs and habits in ancient and modern times. Diederichs, Jena 1935 (= German people. Volume 80); 3. Edition. vbus, 1988. ISBN 978-3-88013-389-1 .
  • Eike Pies: The white and the black art. Professions related to books . Brockhaus, Solingen 2002.
  • Sigfrid H. Steinberg: The black art. 500 years of the book industry . Prestel, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-7913-0213-2 .
  • Twitchett, Denis: Printing and Publishing in Medieval China. 1994, ISBN 978-3-447-03665-8 .
  • Wittmann, Reinhard: History of the German book trade. 2nd Edition. Munich: CH Beck Verlag, 1999. ISBN 3-406-42104-0 .
  • Walter Wilkes: high-speed letterpress presses and endless rotary presses of the 19th century . Techn. University, Darmstadt 2004, ISBN 3-88607-152-9 ( table of contents [PDF]).
  • Hans-Jürgen Wolf: Black Art. An illustrated history of the printing process . German specialist publisher, Frankfurt / M. 1981, ISBN 3-87150-162-0 .

Web links

Commons : Printing  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Book Printing  - Sources and Full Texts
Wiktionary: Letterpress  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Freedom of the press on DWDS.de
  2. UNESCO portal
  3. Franz Irsigler, on the other hand, emphasizes Strasbourg's role in the invention of printing with movable type: Gutenberg's third aventur and art . About possible connections between bell casting technology and letterpress printing with movable letters , in: Metamorphose. From ore to sound. Bells - Art - Senses, arr. v. A. Barth et al. Chr. Biundo, Trier 1998, pp. 36-41.
  4. ^ Gottfried Mälzer: Würzburg as a city of books. In: Karl H. Pressler (Ed.): From the Antiquariat. Volume 8, 1990 (= Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel - Frankfurter Ausgabe. No. 70, August 31, 1990), pp. A 317 - A 329, here: pp. A 320 and A 326 f.
  5. ^ Numbers from Wittmann, Reinhard: Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels, p. 27
  6. When the letters learned to walk, media change in the 15th century: Incunabula from the Bavarian State Library in Munich , red. Bettina Wagner; Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden 2009 (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, exhibition catalog , 81), ISBN 978-3-89500-699-9
  7. Ernst Kern : Seeing - Thinking - Acting of a surgeon in the 20th century. ecomed, Landsberg am Lech 2000, ISBN 3-609-20149-5 , p. 254.
  8. Reinhard Schulze: Islamic Internationalism in the 20th Century , page 28.
  9. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The printing press. Cultural revolutions in early modern Europe . 1997.
  10. ^ Martyn Lyons: History of Reading and Writing in the Western World . 2010, p. 27 .
  11. Hagen Keller: The development of the European writing culture as reflected in medieval tradition. Observations and considerations, In: Paul Leidinger (Ed.): History and historical consciousness . 1990, p. 171 .
  12. Michael Clanchy: From Memory to Written Record. England 1066-1307 . 1994, p. 244 .
  13. ^ Bill Kovarik: Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age . 2015, p. 33 .
  14. GutZitiert.de : Georg Christoph Lichtenberg