How Do/Did They Print Books?

OK, before digital printing, which I sort of understand, how were books printed?

I refuse to believe that for every new book, someone had to assemble lots of little tiny letters on a printing block. That would take AGES, even with some pre-assembled words.

And even if that was the case (which I refuse to believe it was) how did they do pictures (the black and white, line drawing sort, not seperate inserts)?

Am I being thick? I just don’t get it.

(apologies if I’m going over covered ground, but I couldn’t find any reference)

To put it politely, yes, you are being thick. Why do you refuse (twice, in your post) to believe that type was once set laboriously by hand, when in fact it’s well-documented that that’s exactly how it was done for about 400 years?

Here, I’ll help you. Do a Google search on any/all of the following terms and study the sources that come up. Then come back and we’ll try to clear up any further ignorance, willful or otherwise.

typesetting history
movable type
offset lithography

Yes, in the olden days someone did have to assemble lots of little tiny letters on a printing block. A skilled typesetter did not find this much more difficult or time-consuming than a skilled typist would the task of typing the same text. Pictures were more complicated and could use various methods, most of them variations on the idea of engraving.

I’m no expert, but I’ve used two types of printing.

Offset Lithography which involves creating a negative image of the page that you want, using transferable letters and matted pictures onto a metal (originally stone) plate and then using the differential take up of ink onto the plate to print onto a page.

Linotype is a method of creating lead blocks with text and with the addition of lead matted picture blocks that then print by the raised and hollowed plate that is produced.

Both of these were in use within the past twenty years- not ancient history at all.

Printing trivia: The words “uppercase” and “lowercase” come from the custom of putting big letters in the top drawers and small letters in the bottom drawers of the big case that holds all your spare letters.

There are lots of ways to print pictures; one common way Back in the Day was to simply make an engraving and stamp it on to the page. Multipart printing (using a different engraving for each color, this is still used to print the New York Times) was also common for multi-color pictures.

Guy, the mobile type set was a huge labor saving invention. Prior to that, printing had to be done by carving each and every page as a single piece. And that was a great huge labor saving method, considering that it replaced writing each copy of every book by hand.

Did you know, primitive man had no cars? They had to walk to Seven-Eleven to get their coffee on the way to work. It was a real drag.

Ok-- book printing, Part I, was “chiro-xylography”- the illustration was printed as a woodcut, and the scribe still had to handwrite the text around it (get it? chiro: hand; xylography: woodcut. . .). 1430-ish-1460’s-ish (loose dates here). Basically the Middle ages with a shortcut for illustrations, which were often still hand-colored. Part II-- the Blockbook, 1460’s, 70s- both letters and text are carved into a god-damned piece of wood. Man, that sucks. Part III-- movable type, made from metal-- Gutenberg. The illustrations were still usually woodcut for a long time-- this block would be shimmed up so that it was at the same height as the type. Metal engravings, when used, required a separate press (intaglio need much more pressure) and then wood engravings (cut into the end grain of the wood) were popular-- faster and easier.

In fact, it was enough of a labor-saving invention to allow an earlier information revolution - printing eventually got cheap enough and quick enough to allow ephemeral stuff like pamphleteering, advertising broadsides, newspapers and magazines in addition to book publishing. Before then, the amount of time it took to print a book made material related to current events impossible except for very limited distribution.

(I’ve been steering clear of this thread for fear of being sucked into its vortex and never coming out. As some of you may know, print production is one of my “things.”)

As just about all the respondents have already stated, yes hand composing of “monotype” (one letter per little metal block) existed for hundreds of years. Many inventors tried to mechanize this tedious task – including one such money pit contraption backed by Mark Twain. Eventually Ottomar Merganthaler (sp?) invented the utterly ingenius Linotype machine.

A Linotype machine has hoppers filled with little type molds for each letter and character. The composer sits at a keyboard, and as he types each letter, the corresponding mold drops down in sequence; the machine lines the molds in a row and hot lead gets poured over them; the lead cools – creating one line (“slug”) of type; after a slug is thus created, the molds are shuttled back to their respective hoppers to be reused over and over again. All of this takes place while the composer just sits there typing!

As you can imagine, the Linotype machine utterly revolutionized the printing industry. When it first appeared on the scene, typesetters – fearing the loss of their jobs – stormed Merganthaler’s plant and hurled the devilish contraptions from the rooftop.

…And allowed editors to run chatty newspaper columns called “A Line 'O Type or Two.”

Hey! Anyone ruffled through a few newspapers from the early years?

You see, this is why I love The Stright Dope.

I am now considerably less ignorant than I was this time yesterday.

I bow to superior knowledge. Peple really did assemble books that way.

I’m still kinda mind-boggled by the pictures though. I mean, I know a little about engraving, acid-etching etc, (a la William Blake), but imagine the work involved in printing an encyclopaedia or something.

Hmmm, digital data retrieval for me please.

Yeah right, and people used to wash their clothes by hand I suppose?

Oh, and Scarlett, thanks for being polite :slight_smile: