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Origins: 1500s - 1600s

Related: academia - books - fiction - information - literacy - Modernity - movable type - newspaper - paper - press - printmaking - publishing - reading - reproduction - science - underground press - visual culture - woodblock printing - writing

Gutenberg's invention of the movable type in the 1450s not only heralds the start of mass print culture but of modernity itself.


The printing press is a device for mechanically reproducing multiple copies of a text on sheets of paper.

Originally printing was for visuals rather than for written symbols

The original method of printing was block printing, pressing sheets of paper into individually carved wooden blocks. Block printing is believed to have originated in Asia in the 8th and 9th century. The technique was also known in Europe, where it was mostly used to print Bibles. Because of the difficulties inherent in carving massive quantities of minute text for every block, and given the levels of peasant illiteracy at the time, texts such as the "Pauper's Bibles" emphasized illustrations and used words sparsely. As a new block had to be carved for each page, printing different books was an incredibly time consuming activity. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing_press#Block_printing [Jun 2006]

Prints and Visual Communication (1953) - William Ivins

Prints and Visual Communication (1953) - William Ivins [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

"... I became aware that the backward countries of the world are and have been those that have not learned to take full advantage of the possibilities of pictorial statement and communication, and that many of the most characteristic ideas and abilities of our western civilization have been intimately related to our skills exactly to repeat pictorial statements and communications" (p. 1).

"Although every history of European civilization makes much of the invention in the mid-fifteenth century of ways to print words from moveable types, it is customary in those histories to ignore the slightly earlier discovery of ways to print pictures and diagrams, A book, so far as it contains a text, is a container of exactly repeatable word symbols arranged in exactly repeatable order. Men have been using such containers for at least five thousand years. Because of this it can be argued that the printing of books was no more than a way to do with a much smaller number of proof readings. Prior to 1501 few books were printed in editions larger than that handwritten one of a thousand copies to which Pliny the Younger referred in the second century of our era. The printing of pictures, however, unlike the printing of words from moveable types, brought a completely new thing into existence it made possible for the first time pictorial statements of a kind that could be exactly repeated during the effective life of the printing surface. This exact repetition of pictorial statements has had incalculable effects upon knowledge and thought, upon science and technology, of every kind. It is hardly too much to say that since the invention of writing there has been no more important invention than that of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement" (pp. 2-3).

William Mills Ivins, Jr.
William Mills Ivins, Jr. (1881 1961) was curator of the department of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from its founding in 1916 until 1946.

The son of William Mills Ivins, Sr. (1851 1915), a New York public utility lawyer, Ivins studied at Harvard College and the University of Munich before graduating in law from Columbia University in 1907.

After nine years' legal practice, he was asked to take on the conservation and interpretation of the Met's print collection. He built up the remarkable collections that can be seen there today, and he wrote many prefaces to exhibition catalogues, as well as other, occasional pieces which were later collected and published. His best-known book is Prints and Visual Communication (MIT Press, 1969, ISBN 0262590026 (first published 1953 by Harvard University Press)). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Ivins%2C_Jr. [Sept 2005]

See also: reproduction - 1953 - printmaking - visual - communication

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