Monday, February 10, 2020

The Printing Press - A Little of This and A Little of That

By Suzanne Norquist

As an author, I love books and all things related to books. Makes me grateful for Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. However, he wasn’t the first to use stamping technology for printing. He pulled together ideas from several different industries to develop a system to mass-produce printed material.

Printing technology started in antiquity in China. No one is exactly sure when. Some poor fellow would carve a wooden block (in reverse) that represented an entire page. Once it had been created, an unlimited number of copies could be printed. There had better not be any typos.

Around 1000 A.D., the panels were replaced by individual blocks. Characters could be moved around and reused. These blocks were carved into clay and baked into hard blocks. Clay had advantages over wood—a consistent texture and easier cleanup.

For centuries, Chinese printers improved the process using wood and clay.

Then in the 1400s in Johannes Guttenberg created a new kind of printing press. As a goldsmith, he was familiar with metallurgy. Instead of wood or clay blocks, he used a lead-based alloy, which is still employed today. The metal blocks required a different kind of ink, which Guttenberg also invented. He was a busy guy.

One advantage he had over Chinese inventors was an alphabet with only a couple dozen characters. There are over a thousand Chinese characters.

Guttenberg invented a set of special hand molds to mass-produce the letters. They would have looked similar to the bullet molds pictured below.

Small letters would be composed into lines of text. Since all the letters are backward, a slightly dyslexic person like me could have had an advantage. But I can’t even imagine sorting through those tiny letters to make words all day.

Then the words are placed in a wooden frame known as a galley. (Now I understand why my publisher calls a book that is ready to print a galley). These are laid face up on a frame.

Then “ink beaters” are used to cover all the letters with ink. They are huge and are made from leather stuffed with wool. They are crazy looking things.

A piece of damp paper is laid over the top of the letters. And here is where the press comes in. The new block letters didn’t solve the problem of uneven pressure on the stamps. Guttenberg borrowed the technology from the wine and olive oil industry, using a screw-type press attached to a metal plate.


I could use a miniature version of the printing press when I use stamps for making greeting cards. I usually smudge the image when trying to apply even pressure.

With the pull of a lever, the paper is pressed against the inked letters. And, voila, words are on the page.

Unfortunately for Guttenberg, no one appreciates an inventor in his time. While he engaged in crafts like gem cutting, he kept his work on the printing press a secret. His partners learned about it. And since they had loaned him money, they insisted on partnership in the press too. He ended up being involved in several lawsuits with partners and backers of his projects.

On looking back, I can appreciate his brilliance in bringing so many different kinds of things together. Moveable blocks like the Chinese, made from metal instead of wood or clay. Hand molds to easily create blocks. A press like a winepress. I’m so glad he figured it out because I love my books.


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

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  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the post!

  2. My husband working with a printing company for many years. The printing presses were huge and very loud. His hearing was affected over the years. I was always interested in how those presses worked. :-)

    1. Wow. I bet they were loud once they were automated.