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Who Invented the Printer?

written by: Tony J Palazzo•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 2/20/2010

Printers are an indispensable part of doing business in the modern world. Even as faster Internet connections and expanding data storage capacity have enabled increases in purely digital transactions, there is still no substitute for the printed page. But who invented printing? Read on and find out!

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    Ancient Roots

    There is no simple, specific answer to the question of who invented printing. Since printing has been with us, in some form, for many centuries, the answer is best approached through highlighting noteworthy advances in printing throughout time.

    The earliest instances of what could be considered printing began with the carving of wooden blocks. This technique could be described as sculpting, on the woodblock, a mirror image of what was intended to be printed. While there is no specific record of who invented printing in this manner, the earliest evidence points to China in the 2nd century.

    A major advancement in printing was the invention of movable type in the year 1040. It is credited to Bi Sheng, who lived in China. Movable type is simply a process of arranging individual characters in a frame, as opposed to the creating the content of an entire page all on a single woodblock. The single characters of the movable type press were initially forged in clay, then wood, and then metal a few centuries later.


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    Power of the Printing Press

    Another major leap forward was the invention of the printing press in the 1400s by a German metalworker named Johannes Gutenberg. This mechanical press, along with vast improvements Gutenberg made in movable type production and the use of ink, led to a printing revolution across Europe.

    Until the Industrial Revolution, all printers required some form of manual labor to function. The change occurred with introduction of the steam-powered printing press, invented in 1814 by Friedrich Koenig. From this time forward, the pace of printing technology, and indeed all technology, quickened considerably. For all intents and purposes, the next significant advance would be the introduction of the most ubiquitous printers used with computers.

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    Computer Printing

    The question of who invented the printer for computer use is also difficult to answer with any degree of specificity, as the history of the computer is itself laden with gray areas. Some scholars credit inventor Charles Babbage with inventing the computer, (referred to as “the difference engine") which contained its own printer, in 1822. The contentious point here is that this invention wasn’t actually built, and subsequently proven to work, until 1991.

    Gary K Starkweather is credited with the invention of the laser printer as early as 1969, over a decade before the dawn of the “personal computer" – the IBM PC. As for the inkjet, inventors Stephan B. Sears and Edmond L. Kyser filed a patent for a "linear array ink jet assembly" in 1977.

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    A Matter of Perspective

    What we today would consider to be “the printer" is a complex machine that takes many forms and serves many purposes. The timeline of its development contains a number of specific breakthroughs that can be attributed to certain people, but for the most part, its evolution must be considered in context with its functions.