Development of the Printing Press

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Block printing was the original method of printing.

Block printing was the original method of printing. Called xylography it worked by pressing individual sheets of paper onto a carved wooden block. China is thought to be the birthplace of block printing, and we have extant copies of Buddhist scripture (the Diamond Sutra) dating back to 868 A.D. This technique was also used to print Bibles in Europe. There was a great deal of labor required to carve large amounts of tiny text onto the wooden blocks. This fact, combined with the high illiteracy rate of the time led to the “Pauper’s Bible” which consisted primarily of illustrations with small amounts of text. The method of printing required that a new block be carved for each page printed. As this was very time consuming it limited the number of different books that could be printed.

A major innovation in printing occurred with the use of moveable type made of either clay or metal. Bi Sheng was the first to use movable type in China in 1041 A.D. Originally he used clay type, which had a tendency to break. Korea (Goryeo) introduced the use of metal type, even sponsoring a brass type foundry in 1234 A.D. This was a particularly important innovation for both China and Korea, which uses Chinese characters in literature, because of the large number of characters available. The invention of movable type allowed for even more experimentation and innovation in the printing field. Although movable type was invented in China, the process was not fully implemented into the fairly recent introduction of the Western style printing press.

Even though this fact in open for debate, Gutenberg was probably not aware of the printing methods developed in China/Korea. While he may not have been the inventor of movable type, he defiantly was responsible for its widespread use. Credit also goes to Gutenberg for the first use of oil based ink. He used this new ink with “rag” paper that had been introduced to Europe from China by Muslims who had built a paper mill in Baghdad around 794. Prior to becoming a printer, Gutenberg had earned his living as a goldsmith. There is no doubt that this experience with metals was key to his success in creating the printing press. While most people credit Gutenberg with the creation of the printing press in Europe, some people believe that it was actually invented by Dutch Laurens Janszoon Coster.



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