From hand to steam
Before the mid-15th century, everything was written by hand, including multiple copies of the same work, which meant plenty of opportunities for scribal errors. Then the invention of printing revolutionised book production, because it was quicker, easier and cheaper to produce multiple copies with exactly the same text. Even though printing presses continued to develop, with more efficient designs, they were still powered by hand until the introduction of steam-powered presses in the early 19th century. This revolution increased the number and availability of books and allowed their cost to decrease.
Manually operated printing presses continued in use for specific tasks, but by the late 19th century steam power was dominant. Printers often combined printing services with selling books and stationery, and in an advertisement of 1865, Nall’s Steam Printing Works at Norwich in Norfolk offered ‘Printing by steam power with speed & economy’. The same company also sold books and stationery and ran a subscription library.
Nall’s Steam Printing Works, Norwich
For printing a book by steam, each page was made up with individual metal letters (called ‘type’) set into a frame. This ‘typesetting’ was done by compositors who built up each page manually, letter by letter. The frames of letters were then used in a printing machine to make the required number of copies of each page, which were collated and passed to the bookbinder, who produced the finished book. The printing process underwent various refinements, the most significant being the replacement of steam power with electric power. The next revolution came with computer typesetting, which began in the 1980s and is now the method used for most types of printing.
The author’s viewpoint
At first, the author wrote the manuscript of the book – literally! – and for those wealthy enough to afford the services of a scribe, copies might be made. Otherwise, it was almost a matter of luck if a book was copied (and equally a matter of luck if any copy survived to the present day). With the invention of printing, the author gave their precious handwritten manuscript to the printer (who was often the publisher as well) and hoped for a good outcome. Later on, authors were able to generate their text on a typewriter, maybe even using carbon paper to create a duplicate copy. Gradually, refinements in the process were adopted by the publisher to improve the quality and accuracy of the text, such as editing, copy-editing and proof-reading, but the final result still relied on the printer’s skill.
Jarrolds Printers in Norwich in 1865, showing typesetting (bottom left),
printing (bottom right) and bookbinding (above)
This situation changed radically when computers were introduced. It soon became possible to produce a finished text, ready for printing, on computer, and as the price of computers fell, this could be done on personal computers at home. The era of ‘desktop publishing’ had arrived. An author can now construct a whole book and deliver it in electronic form to a company for publication – as an e-book, physical book or both.