In­ven­tive Ge­nius: Guten­berg and the Print­ing Press

The Print­ing Press

The Borneo Post - Good English - - Front Page -

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.

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