The Complete Guide to the History of Printing

The process of printing has been around for many, many years – the earliest record of some form of printing dates back as far as 5000 years ago – so it is not surprising that it has undergone a variety of developments, from primitive clay seals all the way through to the very recent invention of the 3D printer.

Below is a timeline that documents the changes and improvements that man has made to printing, right from its initial conception…


The earliest documented attempts to print are the cylinder seals of ancient Mesopotamia, which were rolled across clay tablets to leave behind an impression. Many of these intricate and beautiful works of art have survived even to this day.

3000BC – 175AD

Perhaps due to widespread illiteracy, printing continues to focus on imagery rather than text. In Europe, Egypt, India and China beautiful designs were printed onto cloth.

All printing was done by blocks or small stamps, carved to the desired shape and dipped in some form of ink before being pressed onto the fabric.

175AD to 800AD

In 175AD the emperor of China commissioned six of the main classics of Confucianism to be carved into stone, in order to preserve an original version of the text.

Confucian scholars, who visited the carvings, placed paper over the stone and rubbed it with charcoal or graphite, leaving white spaces where the letters are.

Later emperors’ used raised mirror lettering, so that ink could be applied with the paper pressed on top to make a printed copy. The black on white letters are much easier to read than the previous white on black ones.


The world’s earliest known printed document is stamped onto a single sheet of paper.


The Buddhists raise printing to the realms of mass production, with the empress ordering a million copies of a prayer to be printed and distributed to pilgrims in 768AD. The project took 6 years to complete.


The earliest known printed book was made in China, comprising sheets of paper glued together to form a 16ft wide scroll. The result was the Diamond Sutra, which also featured the world’s first recorded image printed using ink. Each ‘page’ was printed using wooden blocks laboriously carved with mirrored lettering.

900AD to 1000AD

All of the Confucian classics were printed for scholar officials, plus around 5000 scrolls each of Buddhist and Daoist works. The ‘Standard Histories’ was also printed, a complete historical record that continued to be updated until 1911.

11th Century

Moveable type was invented, which were individual carved letters that could be arranged to form different texts. The Chinese language contains a huge number of characters so this was a time consuming task. Each letter was cast in clay and placed in a furnace to harden, but they were very fragile.

c. 1230

In Korea more durable letters began to be cast in bronze rather than clay. In 1377 the Jikji was printed, the earliest known book printed using moveable type.

c. 1400

Centuries after its appearance in the East, wooden block printing started in Europe.


Gutenberg introduced moveable type to the Western world and invented the first steam printing press. He printed the Bible in Latin as his first piece of work. Letters were printed in black and the large letters at the start of each page were coloured red by hand.

1457 – 1500

This new technology spread rapidly and by the end of the century every European country except Russia was regularly using printing presses. Germany lead the pack with printers in around 60 towns. The Italians developed italic letters and the stylish Roman font, still a cornerstone of typeface today.

15th to 16th Century

Large, illustrated blocks were mixed in with moveable letters to create the first illustrated, printed books.

1457 – 1525

Thanks to the Reformation, the printed brochure was invented as a relatively low cost way to spread a message to a large audience, quickly.

17th to 18th Century

Prince Rupert of the Rhine invents the mezzotint, allowing tonal printing – in other words, shades of grey as well as black. Copper plates were polished smooth or made rough to achieve different depths of colour. Portraits were reproduced, almost the same as a black and white photograph.

18th to 19th Century

The Japanese invented coloured printing by using separate wooden blocks for each colour, inked and printed on separately.


The first typewriter was invented by Pellegrino Turri to enable the blind to write.


Chester Carlson invented a dry printing process commonly known as Xerox.


The first ever laser printer was completed at the Palo Alto Research Centre which took two years to develop.


12 years after its invention, the inkjet printer became a common household item thanks to Hewlett-Packard, although it was extremely expensive compared to today’s printer, costing $1000 which would be closer to $2000 today.

Present Day

MIT invented the first ever 3D printer almost twenty years ago although it is only recently that it has become a major talking point in technological circles.

3D printers have now been used to successful model everything from food to aeroplanes, and from bones to human veins.

About the author


I am Vishal Gaikar, Engineer, Web Addicted, Living in Maharastra, India. Email Me @ vishal@techbucket.org

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