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Stop the press

Printing has moved on since the days when compositors held a line of inked type against a page and "pressed" it

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As recently as 30 years ago, most daily newspapers in Thailand were printed by letterpress, a 15th-century printing technology invented by Johannes Gutenberg. 

The printing machine was known in Thai as chub-klaeh, derived from the sound it made while operating.

A printer selects letters and places them in a composing stick.

When printing by letterpress, typesetting would begin after the text copies were sent to the typesetting section.

At this stage, pieces of movable type would be assembled to take the form of the text copies.

Traditionally, typesetting was performed manually by a compositor. It involved selecting individual letters from a type case, placing them in a composing stick, which holds several lines, then transferring them to a larger type galley.

Only well-trained and skilled workers would perform this role, as each letter is in its reverse, or mirror-image, form.

Composing a Thai newspaper was also inherently more difficult than an English-language publication — the Thai language has 44 consonants, 21 vowels, and four tone marks.

A skilled compositor, however, could still perform the task extremely quickly and accurately.

After the typesetting stage, printing workers locked the movable type into the bed of the press, inked it, and pressed paper against it to transfer the ink onto the page.

Old models of letterpress printers used in Thailand.

The technique actually led the term "press" becoming a synonym for the newspaper industry, and later for media in general.

However, with the rise of computer technology about 30 years ago, Thai newspapers began replacing their letterpress machines with more advanced technology called offset printing.

With this new technology came significant changes in the typesetting process.

In offset printing, text is typeset by computerised typewriters, equipped with typesetting balls.

After the desired text is typeset, it is printed on to paper, which is then pasted up on a paper plate and transferred to a zinc plate.

However, even this technology is now mostly redundant, as most major printing houses have now made the switch to digital technology.

With the rise of the internet and mobile communications, journalists can now produce stories, lay them out on a page and typeset it all from one computer. A digital version of the finished page is then sent to the printer via the internet, and the machine will transform the page into a plate, ready for printing.

Despite the transcendence of digital printing machines for mass production, however, letterpress printing machines remain in operation in smaller printing houses to serve customers who don't require large-scale printing runs.

The printing of wedding cards is a good example, as couples are likely to require only a few hundred cards for their guests. In this case, letterpress printing houses can serve their demand, while larger, digitised printing houses will usually set a minimum printing run of well over a thousand.

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