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From Xylographs to Lead Molds; A.D. 1440-A.D. 1921   By:

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AD 1440 AD 1921

Copyright, 1921 The Rapid Electrotype Company Cincinnati, Ohio


Printing has been called "the art preservative of all arts." The invention of individual movable cast metal type, between A. D. 1440 and 1446, made printing a commercial possibility.

The subsequent rapid spread of the art, in the hands of students and craftsmen, may be said to have been the centrifugal force of the Renaissance and the Revival of Learning, which age, if it can be chronologically delimited, began A. D. 1453.

Printing divulged to the masses the ancient classics which had been locked up in monasteries and accessible only to clerics and the nobility. The common people began to read. Education became popularized.

This brochure is a brief history of the evolution from xylographs to the methods used today for duplicating a typographical printing surface in a solid piece.


The art of writing, and that of printing from wooden blocks, and all the subsidiary arts of illuminating, decorating and binding manuscripts and books, had long passed out of the exclusive hands of the monasteries into the hands of students and artisans, before printing with individual movable cast metal type was invented. This epoch making invention came into practical use between A. D. 1440 and 1446.

When, therefore, Johannes Koelhoff of Lubeck, Germany, printed the "Cologne Chronicle" in 1499, he used individual movable cast metal type. Typographic printing had long before superseded Xylographic printing, that is, printing from a solid block of wood on which type of an entire page were cut individually by hand.

Between the invention of individual movable cast metal type and the perfection by the Earl of Stanhope of his printing press, (a period of about three hundred and sixty years), very few improvements had been made in the mechanics of printing. Everything we know today about the art has come into use since 1799, and if Koelhoff had come to life in 1799 and been permitted to resume his occupation of printer, he would have found himself practically familiar with the mechanical equipment of his craft as used in the establishment of the Stanhope Press in that last year of the eighteenth century.

Centuries before 1440 printing is believed to have been attempted in China; presumably about the beginning of the Christian era. It is said that in the year A. D. 175 the text of the Chinese classics was cut into tablets which were erected outside the national university at Peking, and that impressions probably rubbings were taken of them. Some of these fac simile impressions are still in existence, it is asserted.

Xylography was also practiced in China long before Europe knew the art. It can be traced as far back as the sixth century, when the founder of the Suy dynasty is said to have had the remains of the Chinese classics engraved on wood, though it was not until the tenth century that printed books became common in China.

The authorities of the British Museum also report that Chinese writers give the name of a certain Pi Sheng who, in the eleventh century, invented movable type, and the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts of the same institution possesses a copy of the Wen hsien tung Kao, a Chinese encyclopedia printed in Korea from movable type in A. D. 1337.

To the Koreans also is attributed the invention of copper type in the beginning of the 15th century, and the inspection of books bearing the dates of that period seems to show that they used such type, even if they did not invent them.

The first authentic European printing produced from individual movable type of which we have any recorded impression, bears the date of A. D. 1454. These documents are two different editions of the same Letters of Indulgence issued in that year by Pope Nicholas V. in behalf of the Kingdom of Cyprus. We do not know, however, whether they were printed from metal or wood type... Continue reading book >>

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