Part of The Lightbox's mission is to preserve our local history for future generations to learn about. Our heritage collection has over 4000 items and counting, so intriguing and surprising artefacts are always surfacing! This week on the blog, our Exhibitions & Collections Officer Amy Plewis reveals the interesting history and usage of some cast metal printing blocks found in our archives.

Tucked away in the corner of our store is a sealed tray of objects that I have wanted to open for a long time. It contains dozens of cast metal type pieces used for printing, some with intricately carved letters and numbers, others larger with designs and images. We think that they are probably from Brookwood Hospital, where they would have been used in its printing shop for notices and reports.

In our digital age it’s hard to imagine the amount of physical craftsmanship that went into the production of newspapers and books. Typesetting on a computer is practically instantaneous compared with the way in which documents were printed historically. Even though in the modern era we are able to type, print and change typefaces instantly - these handcrafted blocks remind me of the artistry and human touch, previously so integral to the creative process, that is sadly all but lost to us today.

Before Microsoft Word, fonts were designed and were exclusive to the creator. The individual blocks would have been carved by hand (if wooden) or cast by a mould (later metal). These were then manually composed into the text required, locked into place on the ‘bed’ of the plate to be inked before paper was pressed onto it. In the 15th century, the printing press allowed text to be produced and circulated on a scale never seen before, spreading ideas and literature around the world. This process evolved continually until the industrial revolution, when machines were designed to reduce as much manual labour as possible. Automated machines were in turn replaced by computers, and by around 1980 hand-set type was virtually obsolete.

Over a millennium old, the process of movable type-printing is a rarity today, mainly due to its time-consuming and unforgiving nature. Nowadays it is largely practised on a small scale by artisan printers, a craft and a labour of love. It is curious that the mechanism responsible for spreading the bible, ancient literature and the scientific enlightenment to the far corners of the globe is now an obscure hobby.

Having objects like these in the Heritage Collection is a fascinating and important reminder of the history of this unsung but revolutionary art form, and it is a massive perk of the job that I get to work with them.

Learn more about The Lightbox Heritage Collection