Letters as Small as a Thumb Tack

Here I am sitting writing this blog entry on my laptop and I can’t even comprehend that I can print something as easy as moving my fingers, a fact that hundreds of years ago was a luxury.  In the mid-1400s life forever changed when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which wasn’t a very easy thing to do. This press took hours, days even, to print something. Letters were meticulous selected and put into a caste for the press, these letters ranged from being smaller than the top of a thumb tack to being the size of your finger nail. You would think that this wouldn’t take very long, just insert the letters and put it into the press, easy right? However it wasn’t, the letters had to fix so tight together so they wouldn’t fall out, they had wood placed on the rim and some even had lead placed between then letters. If the letters where that small then can you image how small and thin those lead pieces had to be? Another issues many printers ran into was having to make new molds, before a reusable mold was found, letters could only be used once. So if I wanted to print the word “Hello” I would have to make another “l” before I could finish the words.

While I read about the printing press in a couple of college classes, I didn’t fully grasped how small the letters could be until I visited a printed press. I didn’t grasp how much blood, sweat, and tears went into printing until I did it myself. Today, February 9, 2017, I watched as someone printed picture onto a piece of paper. Today, I used a 19th century printing press to print words on to a piece of paper. Finally today, I took a caste and, using about 10 pieces of wood and made the word “take” which, if it wasn’t a demonstration, later would be placed in the press to print on a piece of paper.

In today’s world all people have to do is type words on a computer and hit print, signals would then run into the printer and little lasers would place those words on a piece of paper. After learning how long and hard it was just to print a piece of paper, I realized that we take printing for granted. Even 70 years ago printing a page was still done pay hand, the inventions of the computer really demolish that way of work. Printing from a computer has become like flicking a light switch, it’s something we simply don’t think about. I won’t suggest that you read about the history of the printing press, however, instead of hitting the print button mindlessly just think about how it hard it was in the mid-1400’s.



3 thoughts on “Letters as Small as a Thumb Tack

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  1. I completely agree on the point that now a days we take advantage of the ease of printing without considering how long it took to get there. This campus itself is equipped with printers that are of great use to thousands of people on this campus, and many students here own their own private printers that they keep in their room. That’s just this campus, the entire world is littered with them for personal use. If that was told to Gutenberg back in his day, I don’t think he would have believed to what his invention would transpire into.


  2. I think the way you talk about the process of printmaking and how much work goes into it, really gives a clear message as to what it takes. Not many people get to experience a printing press, especially with lead type. I have had the privileged, of taking a couple of printmaking classes in my undergraduate work, where even then, it is more advanced then it used to be. Now, plates can be made through a somewhat digital process. Ink is printed onto a film, the film then goes through a long process of exposure onto a special plate, that then results in raised letters on the surface. This is then placed onto a press, inked up and rolled with ink. This alone is a long process itself, and some of the presses you have to ink after each print! After thinking this was a long process, I learned how difficult it was to use metal type. I will never complain about the process of the new ‘digital’ way to printmaking. And as simple as computer printers are, they will never have the same touch and texture as a printing press will create, and its too bad not many people will get to experience the process and end results.

    If you were to continue with this article, I think there are two specific areas I would continue with. I would first like to see you include some links to some videos or photographs of old presses, and how they work. Being someone that has see it first hand, it is something everyone can understand more when they see the actual process. I also think a way to expand on what you have written would be to talk about how printing is starting to not become the primary way for communication. I think talking about the transition to digital would be a good way to tie in your topic with what is occurring today.


  3. Did you really get to use a printing press just now?! What a wonderful opportunity! Is there any chance you have photos from that experience? If so, they’d make a strong addition to the post.

    Beyond that, I agree with Marissa’s comment above: *any* pictures of these very physical things you’re discussing will help make your descriptions even clearer. You might also consider how/why printing presses still exist in an era that has more advanced technology. What emotional or aesthetic tug to they have?


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