Learning Centuries-Old Techniques with Digital Technology

by Cheryl Mendenhall MendenhallCheryl

In all of my classes you will hear me talking about the invention of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg back in the 15th century. Movable type had been used in Asia hundreds of years earlier but Gutenberg’s methods made production much easier. His invention revolutionized printing, distribution of printed materials and influenced the development of typography. Printing methods did not change, albeit a few improvements, for hundreds of years. But as new printing methods finally came about, letterpress began to fade and all but disappeared in the 1980s with the rise of the computer. It has now seen a revival as the look of handcrafted pieces has become popular again – especially for invitations, stationery and posters.


We are so used to instant printing now that I wanted students to get a feel for what the letterpress printing process entailed. A field trip to a letterpress shop would be ideal but hard to accomplish with an 80 minute class in the middle of the day. I have however been able to bring a little bit of the experience to class by using of all things the iPad. I think it’s interesting to be able to use digital technology to experience something from centuries ago. We do miss the tactile aspect of the printing, but students are able to get a sense of how to compose a piece for the press. Imagine having to place each letter individually on the press bed. And add on top of that it needs to be upside down and read left to right. Not an easy task. Even with its complications, the students create some really fun pieces in a short amount of time. Working with Meadows to supply iPads for the activity, I’ve been able to use a new technology to help students experience a very old technology.

Below are some examples from my classes


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