Discovering Print at Bradford Industrial Museum

A history of printing

Printing Presses

In the mid-fifteenth century Johann Gutenberg from Mainz, Germany, invented mechanical printing using moving type. His invention enabled many copies of a book to be produced at the same time. This meant that books could be commercially mass produced so that thay became cheaper and more people could afford to buy them.  

Before his invention, books had been copied by hand or, as in China and Korea, block printing was used. This process involved carving whole pages of text and illustrations into a block of wood and pressing each block onto paper. These sorts of printed materials were time consuming and expensive to produce because a new block had to be made for each page. 

's solution was to develop blocks of text and pictures that could be moved and rearranged from one page to the next, or even from one work to the next. He used metals such as tin, lead and antimony to cast blocks of letters and symbols, and he invented an ink based on linseed and soot which would be suitable for printing on hand-made paper. Gutenberg adapted a wine press so he could slide paper over a rolling tray which held the moveable blocks. The moveable blocks where of even height and would have been hand-set.

In 1454 Gutenberg printed a version of the Bible from a Latin translation of 380AD. This was the first significant book produced using the new process.  

The use of private presses developed rapidly. William Caxton produced 'Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye' in 1474, the first book printed in English. In 1803 Earl Stanhope designed the first all metal (iron framed) press. The Stanhope Press, on display at Bradford Industrial Museum, was made around 1830 by Gilchrist Bros Ltd to be used as a proofing press.

William Morris
developed the Kelmscott Press in 1891, printing the Kelmscott 'Chaucer' on an Albion press. His enthusiasm for book printing sparked a revival in typography and book production.


Letterpress printing, book printing from a relief press, was the only method of book printing before the nineteenth century. Relief printing involves cutting away unwanted material so that the design left over can be inked up with a roller and pressed onto paper. It has been made commercially inviable since the 1970s by the development of phototypesetting and offset lithography, and now digital printing. Usually, book illustration is seen as separate to letterpress, which generally refers to the text.

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