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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