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History of 3D Printing – Timeline (Step By Step)

When nowadays talk about 3D printing and its history, we can look back much further than we thought at first.
3D printing did not emerge suddenly, it developed somehow. Let look at the history timeline, for first of printing, so we can link it with current state in this field. It is an interesting journey through time.

History of 3D Printing

History of Printing

1800-1400 BCE – Phaistos Disc – 

More precisely, the disk dates to around 1700 BCE, according to historians and archaeologists. Phaistos Disc is one of so far unsolved mysteries of human civilization.

Some scientists even doubt in its authenticity, while some others are still deal with deciphering, although during 2014 and 2015 were published the results of some researches.

The disc was found in 1908, July 3, by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, during the excavation of the palace at Phaistos. It is a clay cookie-like disc, with stamped signs – on both sides there is a spiral band containing impressions made by metal stamps.

More about Phaistos Disc:

200 – Woodblock Printing

The oldest known woodblock printed specimens are the fragments on silk – printed flowers in three colours. Cradle of woodblock printing is probably China, from where those first and oldest specimens come, around 200 CE.

In Japan, during the eighth century was used mainly for printing of texts. Until the eighteenth century woodblock printing primarily was used as a method of reproducing of written texts. Several centuries later, woodblock printing developed in Europe, but even during that time it continued to develop in Asia.

Dynasties Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) were most deserving for dissemination of knowledge and literacy by woodblock printing.

Woodblock printing has a very long history and thus many different techniques, but the essence is that the engravings carved in wood are filled with ink and then the picture is pressed into the fabric or paper.

1040 – Intaglio Printing

The term intaglio printing means:

An engraving or incised figure in stone or other hard material depressed below the surface so that an impression from the design yields an image in relief

Printing (as in die stamping and gravure) done from a plate in which the image is sunk below the surface

Woodblock printing had developed and it had its variations, depending on location and time ie. periods of the history. So we can notice in the history timeline of the printing very long period between beginning of woodblock printing and intaglio printing.

The reason is contained the above-mentioned fact. The main variation that represented transition between these two ways of printing was woodcut printing.

In intaglio printing patterns/lines that need to be printed are cut into the metal plate by means of a cutting tool called burin, or through corrosion caused by acid.

From the different ways emerged several variations, so we can find following intaglio techniques:

  • Engraving
  • Etching
  • Drypoint
  • Mezzotint
  • Aquatint
  • Stipple
  • Litography

These are all subspecies of intaglio printing, each predominantly represented in later periods, and some of them will be discussed in the following sections.

1454 – Printing Press

As the inventor of revolutionary contrivance, the printing press, in history will be remembered Johannes Gutenberg. Mid-15th century, he began the great Bible project, with borrowed money.

As a stonecutter and jeweler, in order to realize his idea and print as many copies, he devised the following procedure: a mixture of lead, tin and antimony, melted at a low temperature, he put in a mold. In this way he got the die, durable in the press.

Then was possible to use and reuse the separate pieces of type, as long as the metal in which they were cast did not wear down.

Gutenberg did a great job, two hundred copies of his two-volume Bible were printed, and the expensive and beautiful books were sold on Frankfurt Book Fair at the 1455.

It should be noted that it was not solely Gutenberg’s ingenuity which led to this revolutionary invention. The long history of centuries of efforts and smaller inventions preceded to this great upheaval in the history of printing.

Ca. 1500 – Etching


  • Etch – to produce (as a pattern or design) on a hard material by eating into the material’s surface (as by acid or laser beam)
  • Etching – the art of producing pictures or designs by printing from an etched metal plate
  • Etching – the act or process of making designs or pictures on a metal plate, glass, etc., by the corrosive action of an acid instead of by a burin.

Etching is the process of making printing from metal plates. This is usually copper plate, in which the design is engraved by acid: first, the copper plate is coated with an acid-resistant substance; then the design is drawn with a sharp tool (etching needle); after that the plate is exposed to nitric acid or wax (called ground) it erodes unprotected areas of the plate, finally forming a pattern of the recessed lines. This technique was closely related to the trade of armors.

1642 – Mezzotint


A manner of engraving on copper or steel by scraping or burnishing a roughened surface to produce light and shade

Mezzotint, also called dark manner or black manner. The very name reveals the meaning: from the Italian mezzo (“half”) and tinta (“tone”) – presents halftones. In this type of intaglio non-relief print, subtle gradations of light and shade form the image.

This is a method of engraving a copper plate by evenly pricking its entire surface with innumerable small holes. The holes hold ink and, when printed, producing large areas of tones.

1768 – Aquatint

Aquatint is also one of the etching techniques. Aquatint involves many variations, but the original one is with rosin (the sticky part of the sap of the pine tree). Rosin is used for making tones, of its fine particles.

The acid corrodes around the particles, creating a collection of little marks in the plate that hold ink. The goal of an aquatint is the creation of evenly distributed dots which resisted to acid.

1796 – Lithography

Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century. It is a process in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level.

Lithography is based on the chemical repellence of oil and water, and the fact that grease and water don’t mix. The image is applied to a grained surface, usually stone, using a greasy medium.

Designs are drawn or painted with greasy ink or crayons on specially prepared limestone. The stone is moistened with water, which the stone accepts in areas not covered by the crayon.

Lithography originated in Germany in the late 18th century.

1837 – Chromolithography

The term binds to Louis Prang, a Bostonian who became the most successful American publisher of chromolithograph prints after the Civil War.

He explained chromolithography as “printing in colors from drawings on stone.” The outline stone is not used in the final image. The stones are lined up on each sheet of paper, which is marked with small crosses on each side.

For the popularity of chromolithography was meritorious the production of greeting cards, that developed in the middle of the 19th century in America.

1843 – Rotary press

Such as the Gutenberg printing press was the revolutionary invention at mid-15th century, on the same way the use of the cylinder was a kind of printing revolution at 19th century.

The idea is to develop a full three centuries, to get into the finals of the early 19th. Cylinders had been in use for printing fabric since the 17th century, usually with two cylinders.

Industrial process until the mid-19th century was the use of a cylinder to press paper onto inked type, and placing of the printing surface on the cylinder. Only a press using both is properly called a rotary press.

In its simplest form a rotary press consists of two cylinders which turn in opposite directions. A rotary press prints on paper when it passes between two cylinders; one cylinder supports the paper, and the other cylinder contains the print plates.

There was rivalry among the inventors, which is not surprising because things happened very quickly. Richard Hoe officially became inventor of the rotary press in 1844.

1875 – Offset printing

In offset printing the thing that has to be printed is neither raised above the surface of the printing plate nor sunk below it.

Offset printing is technique where the inked image is transferred* from a plate first to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. The offset plate is usually of zinc or aluminum.

The history of offset printing started in the 19th century when Robert Barclay invented the first lithograph offset press – England, 1875.

The original offset press involved using a hard stone or metal to print directly upon metal. This method used two cylinders.

In 1903, the first offset printing machine was used in the United States. The first person to use an offset printing on paper was most likely American Ira Washington Rubel.

He got the idea accidentally by noticing that the printing from the rubber cylinder was much clearer than that of the metal cylinder.
* transferred = offset

19th century – Hectograph

Hectograph is a machine for making copies of a writing or drawing produced on a gelatin surface. “Hecto” means one hundred, so this is a method designed to make approximately a hundred copies of some things.

Hectograph consists of a pan of gelatin. Prisoners of war during World War 2 are reported to have made a duplicator from the gelatin desert from their meals.

This gelatin process nowadays is rarely used. It requires the preparation of a special master paper upon which the copy to be duplicated can be typed, written, or drawn with a special ink or ribbon.

This sheet of paper is pressed facing down up against gelatin surface, to which the image is transferred in reverse form. Sheets of paper pressed this way on this impregnated gelatin receive an image impression.

Nowadays there are instructions for self-making of hectograph.

1886 – Hot metal typesetting

Meaning: any method of typesetting that involves injecting a molten metal alloy into a matrix to form a relief printing surface.

Hot metal typesetting is also called mechanical typesetting, hot lead typesetting, hot metal, and hot type. It refers to the technology of preparing-typesetting text for printing, mostly letterpress printing.

This was a widely used printing technique in the late 19th and early 20th century. This method works by injection molten metal into a mold that has the shape of one or more glyphs.

In a hot metal typesetting developed two approaches: Linotype and Ludlow Typograph.

1890 – Mimeograph

Mimeograph machine (abbreviated “mimeo”) or the stencil duplicator is a duplicating machine that works by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper.

How it works? The first step is cutting the text into stencils; the second step is when the stencils are placed onto the rolling drum of the mimeograph machine and then applies ink.

The mimeograph stencil invented Albert Blake Dick in 1884. He sold metal mimeograph presses in 1890.

1907 – Screen printing

Meaning: a method of printing by forcing ink through a pattern cut into a piece of cloth stretched across a frame.

This is a technique of printing in which a thick paste of ink is forced through a stencil attached to a finely-woven mesh screen, transferring ink to the desired substrate in those areas not covered by the stencil.

Before printing, the paper is positioned under the screen. For printing, the ink is poured on the screens front edge and spread with the squeegee to the rear of the screen.

Screen printing is also called silkscreen, which indicates that this technique dates back much older times and has come a long way.

In 1907 an Englishman Samuel Simon officially patented the screen-printing technique. His originally method was used to print high quality wall paper commissioned by rich customers.

1923 – Spirit duplicator

Spirit duplicator was invented by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld in 1923. In this machine as a major component is used alcohol. Hence is the name which refers to alcohol (spirit – denatured alcohol). Spirit duplicator is a form of hectograph.

The first sheet could be typed, drawn, or written. The second sheet is coated with a layer of wax with some of colorants.

The pressure of writing or typing on the first sheet conveys colored wax from the second sheet to the coated back side of the first sheet, as when two carbon papers are putted together.

Then these two sheets are separated. The first sheet is fastened onto the drum of the machine, with the back side facing out, acting as a printing plate.

Some manufacturers have developed production of these machines so much, that spirit duplicator is also known as a Ditto machine in North America, Banda machine in the UK or Roneo in France and Australia.

1957 – Dye-sublimation

Etymologically, the word sublimation comes from the Latin word sublimare, which means exalted, raised. So it should not confused chemical and psychological concept of sublimation.

In chemistry, sublimation is a transition from the solid state to the steam/gas state, without inter-phase – liquid phase. In 1957, Frenchman Noel de Plasse noted that high temperatures cause sublimation of specific dyes. He worked as a researcher for Lainière de Roubaix, a French textile company.

The main characteristic this type of printing has to do with heat. Colors in the vapor phase penetrate the surface of the paper and create a gradation. In the process is used a specialized “dye sublimation” ink.

The ink is deposited on inkjet papers, which are used for the next step of the sublimation printing process. After the digital design is printed onto sublimation transfer sheets, it is placed on a heat press along with the substrate to be sublimated.

1960 – Phototypesetting

Phototypesetting or photo composition, or film setting is a machine in which the letters and symbols are photographically reproduced on a light-sensitive material: photographic film or paper.

It is perhaps the most important innovation in typesetting since the development of movable type.

The text slides or negatives obtained that way are used to prepare printing plates. The origins of phototypesetting date back to the 19th century, but the technique is perfected in the mid 20th century and then began the industrial production.

1964 – Dot matrix printer

In 1925 Rudolf Hell invented an early, like dot matrix, device. More modern version is patented in a period 1952-1954 by Fritz Karl Preikschat, who sold rights to utilize in 1957. In 1968 the Japanese manufacturer OKI introduced its first serial impact dot matrix printer.

This technique works by creating characters and illustrations by striking needles against an ink ribbon, printing closely spaced dots in the appropriate shapes.

1969 – Laser printing

In 1938 the American physicist and inventor Chester Carlson invented a dry printing process. This process later was called xerography.

Until 1947 lasted more or less successful attempts and negotiations on producing a printer, and finally in 1947 was signed an agreement between Carlson and Haloid Company, later: Xerox. In 1967, Gary Starkweather was a young researcher in Xerox Company.

He had an idea about this machine, but his employers were skeptical so that period was also turbulent. It seems that laser printing had a pretty hard nascency. However, in 1969 was made the first prototype.

Laser printers are like photocopiers, they use the same basic technology. When something is printing, computer sends a vast stream of electronic data to laser printer.

It produces a laser beam, scan back and forth across a drum inside the printer and builds up a pattern of static electricity. The static electricity attracts onto the page some powdered ink. It is the toner. And finally, as in a photocopier, fuser unit bonds the toner to the paper.

1972 – Thermal printing

There are two types of thermal printers:

1976 – Inkjet printing

The concept of inkjet printing was developed in the early 1950s and by the late 1970s but it took until 1988 for the inkjet to become an item of home consumer.

There was no single inventor; the development was led by numerous companies including Epson, HP and Canon.

An inkjet printer is any printer that places extremely small droplets of ink onto paper to create an image. The dots are extremely small; they are positioned very precisely, and usually have different colors combined together to create photo-quality images.

1986 – Stereolithography

Stereolithography, also known as 3-D layering or 3-D printing, is a method used to create 3D-printed objects. It is the process by which a 3D printing machine, stereolithograph apparatus (SLA), converts liquid plastic into solid objects.

There are many different ways to 3D print an object. Almost all of them utilize computer aided design (CAD) files.

The printing process looks like this:

  • Creating a 3-D model of desired object in a CAD program;
  • A piece of software cuts CAD model up into thin layers;
  • 3-D printer’s laser “paints” one of the layers, exposing the liquid plastic in the tank and it hardens;
  • The platform drops down into the tank a fraction of a millimeter and the laser paints the next layer.

This process repeats, layer by layer, until the model is complete.
The process was patented in 1986 by Charles Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems Inc.

1993 – Digital press

Digital printing collects each image from a complex set of numbers and mathematical formulas. These images are captured from a matrix of dots (pixels). The process is called digitization.

Then, the digitized images are used to control the deposition of ink, toner or: exposure to electromagnetic energy, in order to reproduce the data.

1998 – Frescography

Frescography is the first method of reproduction which enables the perfect creating of printed murals to the specific architecture. It is based on digitally cut-out motifs which are stored in a database.

Some of the new CAM software programs allow the composition of mural designs by working with preview files which are later converted to the original resolution.

When a design is finished, the low-resolution motifs are converted into the original high-resolution images and are printed on wide-format printers.

Frescography is invented by Rainer Maria Latzke and his team of IT specialists. Here’s how Latzke described the effect of the frescography: “To understand the impact of this technology, consider how a Porsche would pass a horse drawn coach. If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, he would have it invented as well – but maybe a little bit quicker.”

Significant inventions in the field of printing in the late 20th century to the present day

1984  3D printing is developed by Charles Hull.

1986 – 

  • Charles Hull founded 3D Systems and developed the first commercial 3D Printing machine, which was called as Stereolithography apparatus.
  • He named the technique as Stereolithography and obtained a patent.

1988 –

  • Scott Crump invented Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).
  • 3D Systems developed model SLA-250, which was the first version to the general public.

1989 – Scott Crump founded Stratasys.

1991 – Helisys sold its first laminated object manufacturing (LOM) system.

1992 –

  • DTM sold its first selective laser sintering (SLS) system.
  • Stratasys sold its first FDM-based machine “3D Modeler”.

1993 –

  • Solidscape was founded to produces an inkjet-based machine that can build small parts with excellent surface finish at a relatively slow rate.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) patented “3 Dimensional Printing techniques”. It is similar to the inkjet technology used in 2D Printers.

1995 – Z Corporation obtained an exclusive license from MIT to use the technology and started developing 3D Printers based on 3DP technology.

1996 – 

  • 3D Systems introduced “Actua 2100”. The term “3D Printer” was first used to refer rapid prototyping machines.
  • Z Corporation introduced “Z402”.
  • Stratasys introduced “Genisys”.

1997 – EOS sold its stereolithography business to 3-D Systems but remains the largest European producer.

2005 – Z Corp. launched Spectrum Z510. It was the first high definition color 3D Printer in the market.

2006 – The Fab@Home project, at Cornell, delivers the first ever open source/open architecture 3D printer based on syringe drive technology.

2007 – University of Washington built their first fab@home in the first quarter 2007.

2008 –

  • Objet Geometries Ltd. announced that its revolutionary Connex500™ rapid prototyping system to be the first-ever system enabling the manufacture of 3-D parts using several different materials at the same time.
  • The first version of Reprap was released. It can manufacture about 50 percent of its own parts.
  • An open source project is initiated – Reprap – which was aimed at developing a self-replicating 3D printer. You can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public Licence.

2010 –

  • Nov, 2010 – Urbee, the first prototype car is presented. This is the first car ever to have its entire body printed out on a giant 3D printer. All exterior components – including the glass panel prototypes – were created using Dimension 3D Printers and Fortus 3D Production Systems at Stratasys’ digital manufacturing service – RedEye on Demand.
  • Dec. 8, Organovo, Inc., a regenerative medicine company focused on bioprinting technology, announced the release of data on the first fully bioprinted blood vessels.

2011 –

  • Jan, 2011 – Researchers at Cornell University began to build 3D food printer.
  • Jan, 2011 – Dutch 3D Printer manufacturer Ultimaker raised300 mm/second and the travel rate to 350 mm/second.
  • June 6. 2011 Shapeways and Continuum Fashion announced the first 3d printed bikini.
  • Jul, 2011 – Led by the University of Exeter, the University of Brunel and application developer Delcam, researchers in UK have presented the world’s first 3D chocolate printer.
  • Aug, 2011 – The world’s first 3D printed aircraft created by Engineers at the University of Southampton.
  • Sep, 2011 – Vienna University of Technology, a smaller, lighter and cheaper printing device has now been developed. This smallest 3D printer weighs 1.5 kilograms, it costs around 1200 Euros.
  • October 5, Roland DG Corporation introduced the new iModela iM-01.

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