The History of Print: From Phaistos to 3D

3D printer

An estimated 45 trillion pages are printed annually around the world, as of 2005. In 2006 alone, there were approximately 30,700 printing companies in the USA alone, and these companies accounted for about $112 billion in revenues that same year. When looking at an even broader scope, worldwide print-related revenues have catapulted the printing industry into one of the largest and most successful industries in the world.

The printing industry has a long, rich history dating back to an estimated 1850 BC. Since that time, we have developed new and innovative ways to print pictures, designs, and type onto a variety of different mediums. But how has printing progressed from the early techniques used in ancient times, to the innovative inkjet and laser printers that are commonplace in today's society? We'll take an informative glance back into time to examine the history of printing, all the way up to the newest innovations in printing technology that are being used and developed today.

Phaistos Disc (1800-1400 BC)

The first known example of printing was found on the Greek Island of Crete, back in 1908, by a group of archaeologists exploring the Knossos complex. The so-called Phaistos Disc is a 'dish' that is about 15cm in diameter and contains a host of symbols littered across its face. Most scientists believe that it was used as one of the earliest forms of a printing 'press'. Countless scientists have tried to decipher the actual meaning of the symbols on the Phaistos Disc, but no one really knows for sure what their true meanings are. It's one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all-time.

Woodblock Printing (200 AD)

A printing technique used commonly in East Asia for centuries was woodblock printing. As the name implies, this type of printing technique used wooden blocks that were carved out with a knife to produce a relief image or text. Woodblock printing was very common in China, where it originated, and it was a technique used to print onto clothing, paper, and to print some of the earliest known books. The world's earliest known printed book was printed using the woodblock technique. This book was a 16ft long Chinese scroll that contained the text of the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to about 868 AD. This famous scroll now rests at the British Museum in London. The woodblock printing technique found its way into European culture around 400 AD, and it was here that coloured woodblocks were first used by the Germans in 1508. This traditional printing technique was such an effective way of printing that some Asian printing firms still use it today to print designs on such things as wallpaper.

Intaglio Printing (1430s)

This printing technique uses a copper or zinc plate that has a design etched into it and is filled with the desired type and colour of ink. Once the paper is set on the ink-filled plate, a press roller is used to force the paper into contact with the ink, which as a result produces the desired image or text onto the paper. This style of printing was desirable because metal is much more durable than the woodblocking technique used in the past, and because of its artistic uses. The Intaglio technique was invented in Germany, and it was commonly used by artists between 1450 and 1550 when it was considered the 'golden age' of artistic engraving. This printing style is still used today to print things such as currency, passports, and sometimes high-value postage. The photo is of a modern-day Australian Dollar Intaglio printing plate.

Printing Press (1439)

Soon after the invention of the Intaglio plate, the printing press was developed in Germany by a man named Johann Gutenberg. The Gutenberg Press, as it was called, would eventually replace almost every other form of printing technique being used around the world at that time. At that time in Europe, the need for books and other publications was growing drastically, and traditional printing techniques could not keep up with this growing demand. The printing press was the answer to this problem because it was able to print much faster than any other printing technique at that time.

Early printing presses consisted of movable type (letters used for stamping ink onto any type of medium, usually paper) that could quickly be interchanged to create type for books, publications and other forms of written media. Gutenberg did not actually invent movable type – it was invented in East Asia long before Gutenberg. It was not efficient for the Asian's to use a movable type printing technique, because their language consisted of 5,000 basic characters – far too many to make a movable type system effective. Europeans, on the other hand, were able to use movable type in the printing press very efficiently, because their language used the Latin alphabet which had far fewer characters than the Asian language. The letters of the alphabet were quickly and easily interchangeable in the printing press, which made printing pages much quicker and more efficient than any other printing technique.

Gutenberg was also credited with the invention of the oil-based ink that was used in the printing presses. Before then, water-based ink was used for printing. The oil-based ink was much more durable than the water-based ink. The Gutenberg press was considered by Life Magazine as the greatest invention in the last 1,000 years because it revolutionised the printing industry into what it has become today.

Lithography (1796)

This form of printing was used to make prints on smooth surfaces. Common uses for this type of printing process back in the 19th century included text and artwork, and in modern times this printing process is still used to produce maps, posters, books, newspapers, and packaging in a process called offset lithography. The early process of printing using the lithography technique involved a smooth piece of limestone that was used as the 'printing plate'. The image was drawn onto the stone using an oil-based substance, which was then burned onto the surface of the stone by applying acid. A water-soluble substance called gum arabic was then applied to the stone, which would stick to the non-oily surfaces; this process would then essentially etch the image into the stone. The stone would then be run through a printing press, making sure to keep the stone wet with water, and the ink would ultimately be repelled by the water and thus fill the cavity of the etched stone, which would then be used to print the image/text onto the paper. Although this chemical process sounds complicated, in reality it was not. The main logic behind this printing technique is the idea that water repels oil (ink).

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in Bohemia in 1796, and it was called lithography because the Ancient Greek word 'lithos' means 'stone'. This technique became popular for printing books, as well as a new form of producing artwork. The early 1800s saw a host of European artists turn to lithography as a new way to create artwork including Delacroix, Gericault, and Goya.

It wasn't until 1837 that a coloured-version of lithography was patented by Godefroy Engelmann, and it was called chromolithography. While chromolithography wasn't patented until 1837, most people believe that the inventor of lithography, Alois Senefelder, may have already implemented colour into his lithography process in the late 1700s. Nonetheless, chromolithography was the first true method for making multi-coloured prints. It was a tedious process to do so, though, because a different stone needed to be used for each individual colour – often times this meant using 20 or more stones to produce one image. Chromolithography was popular among some artists including Louis Prang from Germany, who printed the first American Christmas card; and Lothar Meggendorfer from Germany, who was famous for printing popular children's books and educational games.

Both lithography and chromolithography were eventually replaced by the offset press printing technique, which was also known as offset lithography. This process involves transferring the image from the original plate to a rubber roller, which helped to extend the life of the plate because it never actually came into contact with the printing surface. Offset printing employs the same basic idea of 'oil repels water', which was the general idea behind the lithography process. This process is used for very high-volume jobs, such as printing newspapers. Offset printing was established sometime in the 1800s, but the technology was further developed in the 1970s to produce the high-volume offset printing machines of today.

Rotary Press (1843)

As its name implies, the rotary press works by applying ink to the desired medium via a cylinder that rotates around an axis. This method works well for printing on continuous rolls of paper, cardboard, plastic, as well as other mediums. It was a very efficient printer, which could create up to 20,000 impressions per hour.

This type of printing machine was invented by Richard March Hoe, from New York City, in 1843. Rotary presses vary in terms of the process they use to actually print text or images onto paper or other types of material. There are three main printing techniques used in rotary presses: offset lithography, rotogravure (aka gravure), and flexography. Rotogravure involves etching small holes or indentations into the copper cylinder and then filling it with ink in order to print. Flexography was invented in the 1890s, and its process involves the opposite of the gravure process – a raised image, or relief system, is created on a rubber or polymer-based plate, which used in conjunction with the rotary press, will 'roll-out' the desired image or text.

Screen Printing (1907)

This printing technique was created at the turn of the 20th century, and it involves creating a sharp-edged print by using a stencilling technique. This printing method is commonly used to create posters, T-shirts, hats, and DVDs. Originally, this technique was called silk screen printing, because silk was used in conjunction with stencils to create the print. The man who is credited with pioneering the screen printing technique is Samuel Simon of Manchester, England.

The screen printing technique varies, but basically involves the use of a finely woven fabric (silk, nylon, polyester, etc.) which is stretched out tightly on a wood or aluminium frame. A stencil is then either drawn on the screen or cut and pasted to the bottom of the screen – the idea is to block ink from getting to these areas. You then place your desired canvas (T-shirt, paper, etc.) beneath the screen, and then you squeegee the desired ink onto the screen which effectively prints the desired design or text onto the canvas.

There are other screen printing techniques as well, including the photo emulsion technique. This screen printing method has become popular over the years because it's a fast and inexpensive way of printing. It's also a very durable technique – often times a screen design can be reused tens of thousands of times before needing to be replaced. Automatic T-shirt screen printing machines of today can produce about 800 shirts per hour.

Dye-Sublimation Printer (1957)

This type of printer was one of the first popular computer printers, which has been typically used for printing photos, postcards, photo IDs, and other related media. This printer works by storing its ink on a cellophane ribbon, which is heated-up in order to create the image on paper. The Dye-sublimation printer uses CMYO (cyan, magenta, yellow, overcoat) colouring, where instead of using black, like typical CMYK printers, this printer contains a 'clearcoat' layer that protects the photo and makes it waterproof. This is just one of the advantages of this type of a printer over an inkjet printer. Dye-sublimation printers also produce a better colour gamut over inkjets, and they print pictures that are dry to the touch – unlike inkjet photos which can be slightly wet after printing.

The problem with using a dye-sublimation printer is that this type of printer typically wastes about 95% of the dye in each of the four colour panels. The reason for this is that each four-panel dye ribbon can only be used once per picture printed. Each used dye panel will show a viewable image of the printed document, and thus it can't be reused to print another document – at least with any type of accuracy. You can see how this works by looking at the photo of the baking goods on the counter, and you can see how the used colour panels have a slight imprint of the final image – depending upon the sensitivity of the information being printed, this could be a security concern in some cases.

The first quality dye-sublimation printer for consumers was produced by Alps Electric of Japan (they no longer make printers), and it retailed for between £250 and £500. Since then, most of the largest consumer printer manufacturers have started creating this type of printer including Canon, Sony, and Kodak. The retail prices of these printers have dropped significantly as well.

Photocopier (1949 - first ever photocopier, 1960s - xerography photocopier)

The photocopier was a revolutionary technology that enabled homes and offices the ability to quickly and easily copy a document. The Xerox Corporation is credited as being the front-runner in the history of the photocopier, as they created the most popular type of photocopier which used xerography technology (derived from Ancient Greek words which meant 'dry writing'). Like dye-sublimation printers, the Xerox machine uses heat to create copies of documents that are dry to the touch.

In short, a photocopier works by electrostatically charging a drum inside the machine; a bright light then reflects light from the document to be printed, to the drum itself; toner is then applied to the 'black areas' on the drum; the drum transfers the ink onto a sheet of paper, producing a copy of the original document; the drum is then cleaned of the toner by a rubber blade. This entire process usually takes a matter of seconds.

It wasn't until 1968 that the first real colour photocopier was made available commercially. This photocopier used dye-sublimation technology to print copies with colour, rather than the xerography technology used by the black and white photocopier.

Today's photocopiers use digital technology with integrated scanners and laser printers. Basically, this makes printing multiple copies with a photocopier much faster than some of the older analogue photocopiers. For instance, if you needed 50 copies of a document with an older analogue photocopier, you would need to scan the original document 50 times manually; with digital photocopiers, you would only need to scan it once, and the internal memory would store the scan and make 50 copies for you – it's much quicker and more efficient.

Laser Printer (1969)

The first laser printer was developed by Gary Starkweather of Xerox Corporation in 1969. The first laser printers used the same technology that the early photocopiers were using (xerographic printing process), so it seemed that it was a natural transition for Xerox to go from the photocopier to the laser printer about a decade later. The laser printer uses a laser beam to scan a document, and uses the scanned information to determine the toner distribution to the drum, which then prints out a copy of the original document.

The first laser printer ever designed to be packaged with an individual computer was sold with the Xerox Star 8010 computer in 1981. This innovative new technology came with a hefty price tag of about £8,500, which was obviously out of most people's price range. Today, low-end laser printers can be purchased for under £100, and for about £150 today, you can purchase a laser printer that is comparable to printers from 1985 that sold for about £3,500 at that time. This example really shows how fast printing technology is advancing, and how retail prices are effected, in modern times.

Laser printers vary greatly when it comes to printing speeds, but the fastest laser printers are lightning quick. The fastest models can print black and white pages at over 200 pages per minute. The fastest colour laser printer can do about 100 pages per minute – still extremely fast. The cost of owning a laser printer also varies according to the amount of use and quality of the particular model. Maintenance is generally recommended after about 50,000 pages of use for most laser printers. Cost of toner and paper are other costs that need to be considered, as well as drum replacement. Low-end laser printers typically use a plastic drum, which needs to be replaced more often than other more expensive laser printer models – this greatly increases the cost of ownership.

Dot Matrix Printer (1970)

Soon after the introduction laser printer, the dot matrix printer was introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation of Maynard, Massachusetts in 1970. The LA30 was a 30 character per second dot matrix printer that printed 80 columns of uppercase-only 5 by 7 dot matrix characters across the paper.

The dot matrix printer works somewhat like a typewriter, in that it has a print head that moves back and forth across the page and prints by impacting the paper with tiny ink-soaked rods. Because the characters are created using dots, it allowed for various fonts to be used by the printers. This type of printing technology was also very loud because of the constant impact of the 'hammers' striking the paper during printing.

Up until the 1990s, the dot matrix printer was by far the most popular printer being used in conjunction with home computers. At that time, they were the most versatile, cost-effective, and reliable choice on the market. Early dot matrix printers didn't have the ability to print computer generated graphics, but that quickly changed as more and more consumers wanted to have the ability to print images from their computer screen. Eventually, colour was implemented into the dot matrix printer, but it was never really successful due to the fact that photo-realistic reproduction with this type of printer really wasn't possible.

New printing technology would meet the needs of consumers who wanted to print great-looking photos inexpensively from their home computers, and this new technology was the inkjet printer. Inkjet printers have all but replaced dot matrix printers today, except for a few exceptions such as in cash registers and ATMs.

Inkjet Printer (1976)

Inkjet printers work by 'shooting' droplets of ink onto the desired medium, such as paper. Today, they are the most common type of consumer printer because of their low cost, ease of use, high-quality printing capabilities, and ability to print in vivid colour. The development of early inkjet printers can be traced back to three main contributors in the 1970s: Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Canon.

There are actually three main types of inkjet printers: thermal, piezoelectric, and continuous. Thermal inkjets use print cartridges with a series of tiny electrically heated chambers integrated inside them. In order to print an image or document, a pulse of current is sent through these heating elements, which in turn causes a steam explosion that propels a droplet of ink onto the paper. The ink used in thermal inkjets is known as 'aqueous' because it's a water-based ink.

Most of the commercial and industrial inkjet printers use a piezoelectric material to release ink onto the paper, instead of using a thermal catalyst. When voltage is applied to these chambers, it creates a pulse which forces ink from the jets. This type of inkjet printer allows for a wider variety of inks to be used, but the print heads are much more expensive to replace.

The last kind of inkjet is the continuous type. This type is used commercially for marking and coding products and packages. Continuous inkjet technology involves a high pressure pump that sends ink from a reservoir through a microscopic nozzle. It sends the ink through this nozzle at regular intervals which are adjustable. This is the oldest type of inkjet technology, and therefore it's the most developed. The advantages of continuous inkjet printers are that the jets rarely get clogged, and the velocity at which the ink is 'shot' out of the jets allows for greater distances between the print head and the material being printed upon.

Most inkjet printers use aqueous inks based on a mixture of water, glycol, and dyes for colour. There are other types of inks used in inkjet printers, but they are most often used in commercial applications, including solvent inks, UV-curable inks, and dye sublimation inks. Ink cartridges can be either refilled or replaced with new ones. Inkjet printers either have a fixed head application, which is designed to last the life of the printer, or they have a disposable head that is replaced each time the ink cartridge is replaced. The disposable head models tend to add to the cost of ownership of the printer, but on the other hand, if a fixed head printer's head ever fails, the entire printer must be replaced (in most cases).

3D Printing (1993)

Recent advances in the field of 3D technology have made it possible to print images from a computer into an actual 3D objects such as flashlights, watches, CAD models, iPod cases, toys, and even food! This revolutionary technology is still relatively new, but it's currently available to consumers – of course, the retail price of these 3D printers is at a premium. Consumer 3D printers are selling for £2,500 on up to £25,000, and even more than that for the high-end models.

Some of the 3D printers currently on the market specialise in a certain field, such as CAD modelling. Other 3D printers are more versatile and can print objects using almost any kind of gel-like material. The material used in the printing process does vary greatly, and it depends on the application. In most cases, a polymer, resin, plaster, or fine powder is used to create 3D models that may feel either 'rubbery' or hard as a rock – all dependent on the gel or powder used during the printing process.

3D printers all work basically the same way. First, you must create or find an object on a computer that will be used to print a 3D model. You create a digital 3D model on the computer first, and then you begin the actual printing process. The printer consists of a series of jets or nozzles, similar to inkjets, that create layer upon layer of the chosen printing material (polymer, resin, glue, gel, powder, even frosting) until the entire 3D object is printed from digital form to reality.

The printing process is rather time-consuming, as sometimes thousands of layers are required to finish an object. As you'll see from the video, an approximately 8-10 inch tall rubber model of a dragon took about 26 hours to print. Each layer of an object is approximately 0.1 mm thick, and these layers are stacked on top of each other to create the final object.

The future of 3D printing technology is very bright, and it's only in the early stages of development. In the next 20 years, scientists hope to create a 3D printer that will be able to print out an exact 3D model of almost any small consumer product online such as cellphones (batteries and all), MP3 players, and most other similar products. Scientists have already been able to successfully print not only 3D models, but also actual working products such as flashlights and computer keyboards. The hope for the future of 3D printing is that people will be able to design their own products on their computer, print the product out with their 3D printer, and be able to sell the product to other consumers. It's the ultimate example of a free-trade society.

An even more important advancement in the 3D printing technology involves using a 3D printer to aid in the health care system. Studies are currently underway to see if 3D printing could help in actually producing real tissue and organs using living cells as the building blocks, and allowing them to slowly grow to form 3D structures. These studies have referred to this particular technique as organ printing, bio-printing, and computer-aided tissue engineering.

It's crazy to think how a technology that has been traditionally used to create images and text on a wide variety of substrates, could actually be used to save lives in the future. It really puts into perspective how important the print industry really is to our future.