Who invented the printing press?

Johannes Gutenberg is widely cited as the inventor of the printing press. Indeed, the German silversmith’s contribution to technology in the 15th century was revolutionary – enabling the mass production of books and the rapid dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe. However, the history of printing begins long before the time of Gutenberg.

Chinese monks and blocks

Almost 600 years before Gutenberg, Chinese monks put ink on paper using a method known as block printing, in which blocks of wood are coated with ink and pressed onto sheets of paper. . One of the first surviving books printed in this way – an ancient Buddhist text known as “The Diamond Sutra” – was created in 868 during the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618-909) in China. The book, which was sealed in a cave near the city of Dunhuang, China for nearly a thousand years before its discovery in 1900, is now kept at the British Library in London.

The carved wooden blocks used for this early printing method were also used in Japan and Korea as early as the 8th century. Private printers in these places used both wood and metal blocks to produce Buddhist and Taoist treatises and stories in the centuries before the invention of movable type.

A major breakthrough in woodblock printing came in the early 11th century, when a Chinese peasant named Bi Sheng (Pi Sheng) developed the world’s first movable typeface. Although Sheng himself was a commoner and left no historical trace, his ingenious printing method, which involved the production of hundreds of individual characters, was well documented by his contemporary, a scholar and scientist named Shen Kuo. .

In his 11th century book, “Dream Pool Essays”, Kuo explains that Sheng’s movable figures were made of fired clay. The ink he used was a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ash, and as Kuo says, Sheng’s method could be used to print thousands of copies of a document fairly quickly.

While terracotta movable type was used by several other Chinese printers during the 12th and 13th centuries, Sheng movable type did not become common in China or elsewhere until several centuries later.

In the 14th century, Wang Chen, a Chinese government official in the Yuan Dynasty, independently created his own set of movable wooden figures. His motivation for developing this new printing method was the publication of a voluminous series of books on agriculture called “Nung Shu”.

“Nung Shu” was finally printed in 1313 using proven woodcut methods, not movable type. But Chen’s printing method caught on, albeit slowly, and was used to reproduce documents in the centuries that followed. The type of metal – made from bronze and possibly pewter – was also used in China for printing books and paper money until at least the 18th century.

Historical evidence suggests that movable metal type was also independently developed in Korea at the end of the 14th century. In 1377, a Korean monk named Baegun is credited with printing a compilation of Buddhist sayings using movable metallic type. The two-volume book, known as “Jikji”, is considered the oldest book in the world printed with metallic type. A volume of the work is kept at the National Library of France.

Despite early success with movable type, this printing method did not gain ground as quickly in Asia as in Europe. This mixed reception was probably due to the complexity of Asian writing systems. Unlike the concise alphabetic writing of many Western languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are made up of thousands of characters, each of which should be individually molded for printing using movable type. Perhaps such a daunting task made wood blocks seem like a more efficient option for printing in these languages.

Europeans, however, quickly turned to movable type. Before the invention of printing – between 1440 and 1450 – most European texts were printed using woodcut, a form of woodcut similar to the Chinese method used to print “The Diamond Sutra” in 868. Unprinted manuscripts with woodcuts were laborious. copied by hand. Both processes were extremely laborious and as a result books in Europe were very expensive and not many people could afford to buy them.

But that all changed in the mid-15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg established himself as a silversmith and craftsman in Strasbourg, Germany. In Strasbourg, Gutenberg began to experiment with both woodcutting and the development of a more efficient printing method.

A printer demonstrates a Gutenberg press. Gutenberg’s press allowed more Bibles, books, and music to reach more people. (Image credit: upstudio / Shutterstock.com)

Gutenberg printing press

Like Bi Sheng, Wang Chen, and Baegun before him, Gutenberg determined that to speed up the printing process, he would need to break down conventional wooden blocks into their individual components – lowercase and uppercase letters, punctuation marks, etc. mold these movable blocks of letters and symbols from a variety of metals, including lead, antimony and tin. He also created his own ink using linseed oil and soot, an evolution that was a major improvement over the water-based inks used in China.

But what really sets Gutenberg apart from his predecessors in Asia is the development of a press that mechanizes the transfer of ink from movable type to paper. By adapting the screw mechanisms found in wine presses, stationery presses and laundry presses, Gutenberg has developed a press perfectly suited for printing. The first printing press enabled an assembly line type production process that was much more efficient than manual pressing of paper to ink. For the first time in history, books could be mass produced – and at a fraction of the cost of conventional printing methods.

((ImgTag | http: //www.livescience.com/images/i/000/062/954/i02/movable-type.jpg? 1393311417 | null | Examples of movable characters, which use separate components for each letter, number and punctuation mark.

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