Page last updated at 10:22 GMT, Thursday, 31 July 2008 11:22 UK

How we published before computers

The office of R Smail and Sons in 1903 - Picture by Robert Cowan Smail
The story of Smail's in Innerleithen is part of an exhibition on the history of printing in Scotland. [Pic from National Trust for Scotland]

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

It took the click of a button to publish this article.

One tap on the top left-hand corner of a mouse and it became available to readers around the world.

In these days of the internet, e-mail and blogging, the concept of the printed word can seem as old-fashioned as sending children up chimneys.

However, there was once a time when any small town or village worth its salt would have boasted its own print works to meet its publishing needs.

I think most people living in a world where everything is immediate are amazed at just how time-consuming and labour intensive it was
Gen Harrison
NTS property manager

The last remaining fully-functioning Victorian letterpress print works in Scotland is to be found in the Borders.

Robert Smail's in Innerleithen was passed to the National Trust for Scotland in 1986 after 120 years of trading.

Its history is now a key part of an exhibition in Edinburgh celebrating 500 years of the printed word.

Smail's property manager and compositor Gen Harrison said: "Once upon a time these print works were not unusual at all.

"But over time and with the advent of the computer age, Smail's is the only one that is left.

"It is in the original building with the original operations being used."

Visitors get the chance to try the "hands-on" typesetting experience

This year's events stem from the patent granted in 1507 to Androw Myllar and Walter Chepman authorising them to set up a printing press in Edinburgh.

The earliest known output from their press - The Complaint of the Black Knight - is dated 4 April 1508.

Thanks to the 500th anniversary celebrations, visitor numbers at Smail's in Innerleithen have seen a significant upturn.

General knowledge of printing, too, appears to be on the rise.

Process developed

Ms Harrison said: "We have noticed in the last 10 years people are more computer literate and they know or understand a lot about the process.

"A lot of the terms were all around 500 years ago.

"But I think most people living in a world where everything is immediate are amazed at just how time-consuming and labour intensive it was."

Letterpress printing is carried out with moveable type.

It is a form of relief printing - where the parts to be printed, both type and illustrations, are raised up from the base plate.

Newspapers produced at Smail's
Smail's print works operated in the Borders for 120 years

Ink is then applied and the plate is pressed against paper or another smooth surface.

German Johannes Gutenberg has been widely credited with the invention of printing from individually-cast reusable letters in the 1400s.

Visitors to the Borders print works get a real feel for how that process had developed by the 19th Century.

"Allow at least a good hour - we will put you to work," warned Ms Harrison.

"People love the fact that it is hands-on - exactly how it used to be."

Now the Innerleithen experience is going on tour to Edinburgh from 1 August with a selection of objects and images from the era of letterpress printing.

There is also a demonstration room where people can "come and have a go" at printing methods from another era.

And they will certainly discover it was a world away from how this short article was produced.

Lasting Impressions: The National Trust for Scotland and the Printed Word is at the NTS Gallery, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh until the end of October.

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