[Guest Article] Gutenberg’s Inventions – Part 6: Press
In our series, guest author Dr. Julia Bangert from the International Gutenberg Society introduces the inventions of Johannes Gutenberg. The sixth edition is all about the press.
For the development of the printing press, Gutenberg was able to draw on various models, such as a wine press or a paper press. However, such wooden screw presses were not suitable for letterpress printing because the platen – the large plate with which pressure is exerted on the objects below – was pressed down by the screw in a rotary movement. In this way, any impression on paper would have been smeared. An important invention by Gutenberg is therefore a small central piece between the platen and screw, which prevents the platen from rotating when pressed down.
Inserting the paper
The part underneath the platen is a movable undertable, the carriage, and can be pushed back and forth. Whether Gutenberg’s primeval press also had such a carriage, we do not know, since it has not been handed down, like the hand mould. In any case, the usual reconstructions have a carriage and on it lies the type, which is inked before printing, as described in the last part. The front part of the carriage can be opened twice. These two parts are called tympan and frisket. The paper, which is moistened for better ink acceptance, is fixed with pins on the tympan. The frisket, which should protect the edges of the paper from soiling, is placed on top and then the tympan with the paper is folded down on the inked type. The carriage is now rolled under the platen.
The actual printing is finally done by pressing down the platen, which presses the paper onto the inked type. This first pressure on a paper is called face printing. When the paper is then printed with a new set on the reverse side, the so-called perfecting takes place. The pins ensure that the type area on the front and back of the paper is exactly the same. The finished printed sheet is then hung up to dry. For the whole process, two journeymen were employed at the press: one who inked the type with the ink balls, and the actual printer, who operated the long handle attached to the screw to press down the platen. Unlike the typesetters, these assistants did not have to be particularly well educated, but mainly strong.
The further development of the printing press
The printing press was used in this form for centuries. Only the forms were extended so that soon up to eight pages could be printed simultaneously on one sheet. This was then folded several times depending on the number of pages printed. Later, there were also more stable printing presses made of metal. However, the basic principle of Gutenberg’s invention only changed in the course of the 19th century with the development of machines for hot metal typesetting, such as the monotype and linotype, and the steam-driven rapid press.
Representation of letterpress printing. Book of Estates by Jost Amman 1568.
About the Author:
Julia Bangert has a PhD in book studies and is an artist. Her dissertation entitled “Buchhandelssystem und Wissensraum in der Frühen Neuzeit” was published in 2019. In addition to her work as Managing Director of the International Gutenberg Society, she works as a book painter and illustrator. Finest colouring and an elegant brush stroke are her trademarks, a perfect gilding is her passion.