February 21, 2009
Who Invented Movable Type Printing?
By Kara Hiltz
DoubleSided: If You Said Johannes Gutenberg, You're Wrong
Most of us Westerners learned that Gutenberg invented the first movable type printing press in 1456. In reality, Gutenberg exposed Europe and the rest of the West to this technology but China had already invented movable type printing much earlier than Gutenberg — about 400 years earlier, in fact.
Movable Type Printing Dates Back to the Song Dynasty
You can track movable type printing back to the days of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), according to ChinaCulture.org.
The process developed from block printing, in which the Chinese carved an entire page of characters into a wooden block. But the process took too much time because they needed to carve a new block for every new page. Movable type presented the next logical step toward a more efficient printing process.
A man named Bi Sheng (sometimes translated as Pi Sheng) created movable type when he carved individual characters each on their own identical blocks of clay. Once he hardened the clay through a heating process, he could position the pieces on an iron plate with resin, wax, and paper ash on its surface, explains a New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV) educational video. Heating up the plate melted the resin and wax so that the blocks stuck to the plate.
After printing the page, Bi Sheng detached the individual pieces so that he could reuse them for a different page. While this movable type process would still take too much time for your typical office memo, it worked well for large publishing jobs.
Later, the Chinese made these clay character blocks out of wood because the clay pieces broke too easily. The Chinese also experimented with tin, but the tin didn't hold their water-based ink, according to Thomas Christensen's article titled Gutenberg and the Koreans.
2008 Olympics Bring Ancient Chinese Printing Methods Into the Spotlight
The 2008 Olympics in China brought some unexpected attention from Westerners who wanted to learn about the origins of movable type printing.
Dongyuan, a small rural village in China that still houses an ancient wooden movable type press, experienced increased attention as Olympics attendees rushed to get a glimpse of the historic press, according to China.org.
"At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, spectators and TV viewers around the world were thrilled by a four-minute performance showcasing the movable-type printing technology, with a formation of some 900 men imitating the operation of a printer and creating the image of the Chinese character 'he' — meaning harmony and peace — in different calligraphic styles."
Apparently, the villagers of Dongyuan actually still use this ancient printing technology. What would they think of the Memjet?
We all have our idiosyncrasies. So do printers as it turns out. In our DoubleSided feature, we explore the lighter side of printers as well as the esoteric and bizarre. We also peer into the future of printing. From fabbers to printing on toast, you'll find it all here.