History of Printing

Printing History from Ancient to Modern Times

GreatFX Printing offers a whole gamut of products that will quench your printing needs: from business cards and postcards to stickers and brochures (and gobs more). There are now so many facets of the printing industry that a business has nearly immediate access to whatever is necessary for a successful marketing and networking strategy.

But, did you ever wonder how it all came to fruition that GreatFX can offer such fantastic products at great prices -- not so much the history of the company, but the history of printing as a whole?

Mesopotamian Cylinder Seals

Ancient Mesopotamian
Printing Seal Example
The oldest surviving "printing press" dates back to before 3000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. The natives of this time and culture hand-carved pictures on cylinders averaging an inch in length. Each cylinder depicted a scene, story or even the lineage of an individual to account for his signature. Users rolled these cylinders seals along wet clay to leave an impression on the surface. Other uses included the creation of hieroglyphs or even notarization of the authenticity of duplicate clay "documents."

Owning a cylinder was seen as honorable -- many graves that held precious, high valued items such as gold and gems also contained a cylinder or two. Additionally, it is believed that the owners of such cylinders wore them as necklaces, in order to have them available at a moment's notice.

Chinese Buddhist Book
The Diamond Sutra

Asian & European Block Printing

The earliest forms of block printing were found on clothes dating back to the Chinese Han Dynasty in 220. Block printing on paper increased in popularity with the introduction of Buddhism in India, China and other Asian regions. Buddhism puts a lot of importance on copying text for the purposes of preservation, and block printing made that possible. The Diamond Sutra is the oldest block printed book in known existence, carrying a date of May 11, 868.

Block printing became common in Europe by 1300, predominantly for printing large and elaborate religious images on cloth. With the increased usage of printing on paper by 1400, religious prints and playing cards were mass produced. Block books, dating at around 1440, provided a cheaper alternative for duplicating texts.

Moveable Type and the Printing Press

Chinese Porcelain
Printing Blocks

Bi Sheng created the first known moveable type, a system of using moveable blocks to create the necessary words and images, out of porcelain around 1040. Metal moveable type followed around 1230 during the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. This process was much quicker than using block printing, since the layout could be changed as needed, but, due to the large size of Asian characters, this system wasn't widely used until the creation of moveable type in Europe around 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany.

Printing Press
Soon after creating movable type, Gutenberg developed the first printing press in 1440, by which ink was applied to the moveable type, with paper or cloth placed over it, and pressure applied mechanically to transfer the ink. The appearance of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 lead to the rapid production of printing presses and the printing revolution all across the globe. By 1500, European printing presses had produced over 20 million books leading the charge to quench human thirst for reproducible knowledge.

Gutenberg also made strides in the development of ink and the creation of a highly durable type called type metal. European movable type and the printing press not only resulted in an easier printing process, but lead to the creation of fonts - something used so widely today that they have become a quintessential part of the how we develop our printed marketing pieces.


Lithograph Stone
In 1796, in an effort to find an inexpensive way to mass produce theatrical publications, German actor and author Alois Senefelder created lithography, a method of printing that uses a completely smooth limestone or metal. An oil-based image is drawn on the smooth surface (often with something like a wax crayon), followed by acacia gum (made from hardened sap) that soaks into the pores of the stone, repealing oil on those portions. When the printing process commences, oil-based ink is used and sticks only to the portions of the stone or metal not covered by acacia gum, transferring the image to paper or cloth.

William Sharp Original
Chromolithography Example


Until the early 1800s, only black ink was available. While Senefelder was the first to document the idea of printing in multiple colors, known as chromolithography, the official patent was issued in 1837 to Godefroy Engelmann of France. William Sharp was the first American to create a chromolithographic print in 1840. Because of low production costs and ability to resemble paintings, chromolithographs were mass produced following the Civil War. However, the term "mass production" is a bit misleading because, at the time, it would take approximately three months to draw a multi-color image on a lithograph and production wouldn't reach 1,000 copies for almost five months.

Offset Press

Modern Full Color
Sheet-Fed Offset Press

The offset press is the modernization of lithography printing. Offset lithography utilized the photographic process to transfer an image. Initially, a photosensitive emulsion was brushed on the lithographic plate and then the photographic negative was placed over it. Covering the plate with the printing medium and then exposing it to ultraviolet light transferred the positive of the image upon development.

Offset Printing
Ink Cylinder Diagram

More commonly today, the offset press takes this methodology a step further with the use of a metal cylinder in place of a flat stone, making the process more efficient for mass production. The first rotary offset printing press was invented by Robert Barclay of England in 1875, and it is still used for printing all sorts of materials, including brochures, books, magazines, posters and newspapers. Do you recall those popular movie montages of newspapers rolling around presses in a factory to emphasize a headline important to the plot? Well, that's an offset press. Most of these processes today use computer-to-plate systems, in which the negative of the necessary image is generated through a computer program and etched into the cylinder by a laser, covered in ink and then rolled over and over again onto the print medium.

Digital Printing

Digital Printing    vs    Offset Printing

Quite simply, a digital printing press uses a digitized image created with a computer and transfers it to a print medium. The most common digital presses today are laser and inkjet printers, which, unlike most other forms of printing, are available at a reasonable cost for in-home, individual use. Because the technical steps of offset printing are not necessary with this method, digital printing provides instantaneous image alterations between prints with an instantaneous turnaround time.

Digital Printer Cross Section
The first digital printing press of note, aside from developments made by major manufacturers like 3M and Kodak, was the IRIS printer, which programmer David Coons adapted for fine art printing and the Nash Edition printing company adopted in 1991. Today, fade-resistant inks are more popular.

While digital printing presses are faster and slightly cheaper for production, the opportunity cost for speed and cheap comes in the form of reduced print quality. No method currently available matches the quality and cost benefit of offset printing. While digital may be more accessible, offset printing is most certainly the best method to choose when print quality matters.

Some modern Internet-based printing companies such as GreatFX Printing offer full color offset printing with reduced production time for only a marginal increase in cost. This is achieved through specialized and proprietary processes which allow offset presses to output prints faster, and without a reduction in print quality.

3D Printing

Many inventors were part of what is now 3D printing - the process by which a three dimensional, solid object is digitally produced. Material is put together in layers to create the finished product. The process is most commonly used in the production of jewelry, shoes, vehicles, dental and medical products, educational materials, prototypes and many others.

Two Photon Lithography
Formula One Race Car
285 Microns in Size

The Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) system - which uses a laser to fuse together powders to create a 3D image - was patented in the '80s by Dr. Carl Deckard. MIT graduate students Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson coined the term "3D printing" in 1995 when they modified an inkjet printer to bind together powder rather than put ink on paper. This adaptation led to the creation of their company Z Corporation and, of course, a patent. With increased popularity, the price of 3D printers continues to decrease; however, they are far from affordable for the common household or even for mass production of most marketing materials.

A new process revealed in 2012 dubbed Two Photon Lithography has opened up the ability for scientists to print microscopic yet highly detailed prints of just about anything. Two Photon Lithography utilizes liquid resin precisely hardened in exact locations by a focused laser beam. Moveable mirrors guide the focal point of the laser beam through the resin leaving behind a line of solid polymer just a few hundred nanometers wide. From this high resolution process, intricate structures can be printed with exact specificiations as small as a grain of sand. This method of printing will have many useful applications in the medical and electronic fields.

Printing by GreatFX

Quality Control
Checking Finished Sheets
For Color & Consistency
It's exciting to see how the history of printing has led us to a place of exceptional quality and value. At GreatFX, we take great pride in the high quality printing process we're able to offer on all our products. Offset printing is the best option currently available for your marketing materials. And, even though it may be a bit more expensive than digital printing options, we're still able to offer competitive, affordable prices with a quality that won't disappoint.

That's why we offer a 100% make-it-right money back guarantee: If you are not completely satisfied with your purchase related to cut, color, texture or appearance, GreatFX offers you the choice to reprint your product at no cost to you, or we will completely refund your money. That's how confident we are in the offset printing process and our quality inks. And, as the printing process continues to develop and change, GreatFX will adapt so that our customers will always receive the best quality at the best price and without compromise.

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