Inventive Genius: Gutenberg and the Printing Press
The Printing Press
WITHOUT the invention of the printing press, the dissemination of information would have been an arduous task.
That’s why we are thankful for the ingenuity of German inventor Johannes Gutenberg.
His aha moment enabled the mass production of books and the rapid dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe.
In the middle of the 15th century, Gutenberg established himself as a goldsmith and craftsman. He first began experimenting with both xylography and the development of a more efficient method of printing.
Nearly 600 years before Gutenberg, Chinese monks were setting ink to paper using a method known as block printing, in which wooden blocks are coated with ink and pressed to sheets of paper.
The carved wooden blocks used for this early method of printing were also used in Japan and Korea as early as the eighth century.
In the 14th century, Wang Chen, a Chinese government official of the Yuan Dynasty, independently created his own set of movable characters out of wood. His motivation for developing this new method of printing was the publication of a voluminous series of books on agriculture, titled “Nung Shu.”
“Nung Shu” was eventually printed in 1313 using tried-and-true woodblock methods, not movable type. But Chen’s printing method did catch on, albeit slowly, and was used for reproducing documents in the centuries that followed. Metal type — made from bronze and perhaps tin — was also used in China for the printing of books and paper money until at least the 18th century.
Historical evidence suggests that metal movable type was also developed independently in Korea in the late 14th century. In 1377, a Korean monk named Baegun is credited with printing a compilation of Buddhist sayings using movable metal type. The two-volume book, known as “Jikji,” is believed to be the oldest book in the world printed with metal type. One volume of the work is held at the National Library of France.
Despite early successes with movable type, this method of printing didn’t catch on as quickly in Asia as it did in Europe. This lukewarm reception was most likely due to the complexities of Asian writing systems. Unlike the concise, alphabetic script of many Western languages, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are made up of thousands of characters, which would each have to be cast individually for printing using movable type. Such a daunting task may have made woodblocks seem like a more efficient option for printing in these languages.
Europeans, however, took to movable type quickly. Before the invention of the printing press — sometime between 1440 and 1450 — most European texts were printed using xylography, a form of woodblock printing similar to the Chinese method used to print “The Diamond Sutra” in 868. Manuscripts not printed with woodblocks were painstakingly copied by hand. Both processes were extremely labor intensive and, as a result, books in Europe were very expensive and few could afford to buy them.