This is a brief inroduction to the printing of the book and printing in general. As it has to be concise many important examples have been left out but the "books on books" section should lead you to more substantial resources.
In the city of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg (c1397 - 1468) started experiments with printing in between 1430 and 1440 leading him to produce the first printed book associated with the western world. We know that he had completed and published the 42 line bible by March 1455 as Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, described it in a letter to a friend. He mentions how the large script is easy to read without glasses. It is now thought that the reason for printing such works as the bible was not primarily a commercial one, rather it was a means whereby a religious text could be reproduced accurately; an important factor in the eyes of the church. Prior to this new age, manuscripts had all been written by hand and this long production process often resulted in mistakes being made in the text, and it would have been impossible for the recipient of the final manuscript to know if mistakes had been made. Therefore the fact that type set by hand could be corrected before publication gave printing an important role in the printing of religious books. But there were other demands as well for there was already a growth in literature even before the advent of printing. Chaucer, for example, had already written 'the Canterbury Tales' in 1387. The demand for secular works was beginning to grow and this was encouraged by universities being founded in several major cities.
The other factor was the growing interest by the intelligentsia, artists and rich merchants in antiquity and in texts that had been brought back from the Arab world, Greece and Rome. The written word had mainly been the province of the church and monks, but these newly discovered non-Christian texts could now be distributed to a new generation by means of the printing press.
This meant that there was a large scale latent demand and, as a result, the expansion of the printing industry was rapid. By 1470 a press had been set up in Paris and in 1476 William Caxton had set up the first printing press in Westminster, England. By the start of the new century there were more than 1000 printing shops across Europe and by this time too the number of secular works that were printed outstripped religious works.
The artist Albrecht Durer's (1471-1528) role was an important one in the way that he both developed the woodcut as a means of reproduction and made the printed book into a work of art.
The new world of travel with, for example, Columbus reaching America in 1492, further encouraged a widespread desire for literacy and books as well as printed maps. This was a way for, at least one section, of the masses to follow the many new discoveries.
Books, both text and illustration, became important in terms of spreading propaganda but they were also important in spreading new scientific ideas.
The printing of the polyglot bible is of particular interest as this required the cutting of numerous types representing a variety of languages. The first was completed in Genoa (Italy) by Petrus Paulus Porrus, in September 1516. This was also the first book printed in Arabic.
In Spain Cardinal Ximenez instigated the printing of a polyglot four years (1502) earlier than the previous example but it was not completed until July 1517, but not published until 1522.
Bishop Brian Walton was editor of a six folio Polyglot that was published between 1653 and 1657. It was printed in Hebrew, Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic and Persian, by Thomas Roycroft (d.1677). The title-page was designed by John Webb and engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar.
In Britain such was the obvious power of the press that restrictions were placed on where presses could be established. By 1557 no printing was allowed outside London apart from the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Dr. John Fell at Oxford introduced a set of Dutch types between 1670 - 1672, (see the type section) which have become known as the "Fell types". This advanced the position of the press to print in a variety of languages.
"He gave the Univ. a noble collection of letter, consisting (besides the common founts Rom. and Ital.) of Hebr. Samaritan, Syriac, Arabic (Persic, Turkish and Malayan bought of Dr. Hyde), Armenian, Coptic, Æthiopic, Greek, Runic, Saxon, English and Sclaconian: Music, Astronomical and Mathematical signs and marks, flowers, &c."
Rowe Mores in Updike,D.B: Printing Types Vol. II pp 96 [Dover 1980]
John Baskerville (1706 - 75), born in Wolverley in Worcestershire, is not only important for designing a type face which is still popular today, he is important because he gave consideration to the totality of book design and production. Baskerville was a printer and type designer from Birmingham (UK) who began his career as a writing master and engraver, two skills which gave him an insight into the very basics of letter design. After making a fortune in the business of "japanning"* he set up his own printing works in 1751 - 52. The first book to come of the press was the Virgil of 1757 (see below).
Baskerville set about improving on the press work in order to show his typeface to the best advantage. His type was a sophisticated design which benefited in its appearance from the modifications Baskerville made to the printing press by making the bed flatter and sturdier. He also recognised the advantage of using a smooth "wove" paper developed by James Whatman, which showed up the finer detail of the type; this replaced the traditional "laid" paper used by his contemporaries. In order to make the paper smooth it was pressed between sheets of hot copper. He also made his own ink, a quicker drying and particularly opaque black, which refined the process even further and helped give the type a particular crispness which had previously been lacking.
Baskerville became printer to the Cambridge University Press. He was admired in Europe by printers and typographers, notably Fournier and Bodoni and he established a long lasting friendship with a fellow printer called Benjamin Franklin who, after establishing a successful business in Philadelphia visited Baskerville in Birmingham.
The punches from which Baskerville created his type were lost in France for many years until they were recovered by the French firm Deberny and Peignot who then gave them to Cambridge University Press, where Baskerville had been Printer of Bibles and Prayer Books (1758 - 63).
* a method of coating metal or wood with a hard black varnish, which was also often decorated with coloured designs.