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Printing – How it all started

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If you're looking for a career, you've come to the right place. The U.S. printing industry is the largest such industry in the world. Printing is among the nation's foremost industries in general, encompassing both the government and private sectors. Gross receipts totaled over $100 billion (in current dollars) in 1990, second only to a half-dozen other manufacturing industries, with year-end 1996 sales exceeding $116 billion.

Printing is the largest manufacturing industry in several states. In Florida, for example, industry revenues for 1996 were in excess of $9 billion, with projected increases of up to 13 percent. According to the Printing Industries of Maryland, the state-wide payroll is approximately $600 million a year, paid to over 28,000 employees, most of whom earn an hourly wage above many other industries.

The printing industry is not just the number of presses churning out endless quantities of pages of printed matter. The U.S. Department of Commerce calls it the "Printing, Publishing and Allied Industries" (Standard Industry Code Major Group 27) and breaks the industry down into several distinct components.

Approximately 1,537,700 people were employed in the composite industry in the United States during the mid-1990s. In Canada, printing is that nation's fourth largest employer, with some 75,000 workers, producing over $9 billion in sales, and generating another $8 billion in other sectors of Canada's economy.


Maybe you never thought about it this way, but printing is a technology whose primary purpose is to keep a record. From the earliest days of prehistory, when cave dwellers scratched their picture symbols on the walls of their caves, people have been obsessed with the need to put it on the record: How many buffalo were bagged in today's hunt? How many stocks were traded on Wall Street?

Now, a scratch or a painting on a cave wall is one way to get a message across, but it is limited. After all, only a handful of people can squeeze into a cave at any one time to view a pictograph. So the next step was clay and stone tablets, which could be distributed and stored-up to a point. Then, Came Papyrus and then Vellum, the specially processed skins of animals called parchment. On each of these substrates, the text of the message had to be laboriously hand-lettered by rows of scribes, monks, and other well-motivated workers. Still, the message was not getting out to a wide-enough audience, and the costs associated with assembling books and manuscripts were extreme. What was needed was a method of reproducing the message many times over and then distributing it to a wide readership: printing.

Printing requires a cheap and abundant surface to print on, a system of movable type to compose the message, and a printing press. Only in the past one hundred years or so have all the elements needed to print in volume fallen into place.
The Chinese invented paper, a cheap and abundant surface, and, about a thousand years before fifteenth-century German aristocrat Johannes Gutenberg made his important contribution, they also invented movable wooden type and a printing press of sorts. But the Chinese language is complex, with hundreds of different characters, and because of this, printing in China never advanced to any significant degree. It remained for Gutenberg to reinvent movable type during the 1400s, this time with metal instead of wood. But, in contrast to the Chinese, Gutenberg had only to contend with three dozen letters and numbers in the German alphabet. So his efforts succeeded, and books began to flood Europe to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for knowledge among people who were just emerging from the Middle Ages.

Printing presses sprung up throughout European capitals at the height of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. In addition to the written word, printers began to refine music type as well as illustrative engravings necessitated by the advents of humanism and naturalism, and also improvements in architecture, pedagogy, and the early illustrative encyclopedias. Major centers of printing included Lyons, in France; the diligent press of Platin, also known as Plantijn, in Antwerp; the Vatican and other Italian presses; and Amsterdam, where printers improved the engraving process and freely "borrowed," translated, and undertook the publication of controversial (banned) books and pamphlets. Finally, to round out the picture, in the late 1800s, Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant in the United States, invented a machine that automatically cast molten lead into lines of type, eliminating the slow, laborious task of setting type by hand, letter by letter. He called it the Linotype machine, and printing has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
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