This week, I wanted to give our readers an overview on the history of print before Gutenberg. While many people know of Gutenberg and how important the printing press was in regards to industrialization, few people know the origins of print.
To cover the basics, the printing press is a machine for printing text or pictures from type or plates. According to the great historical source known as Wikipedia, “A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring the ink. It marked a dramatic improvement on earlier printing methods in which the cloth, paper or other medium was brushed or rubbed repeatedly to achieve the transfer of ink, and accelerated the process. Typically used for texts, the invention and global spread of the printing press was one of the most influential events in the second millennium.”
In regards to the earlier printing methods, the earliest known printed texts originated in China during the first century. A Buddhist book entitled “The Diamond Sutra” is the oldest known printed book and dates back to around 868 A.D. This book was created using block printing which consists of using hand-carved wood panels in reverse. Other texts survived during this time period in China, including a calendar from 877 A.D. During this period in print, scrolls began being replaced by texts similar to books we see today.
100 years after the first (documented) printed manuscripts arrived, a man by the name of Bi Sheng created moveable type. This was carved into clay and baked prior to being arranged onto an iron frame and pressed using an iron plate. During the Southern Song Dynasty in China, which ruled from 1127 to 1279 A.D., books were prevalent in daily society and helped to create a scholarly class of citizens. Additionally, large book collections were a status symbol among the wealthy.
Incredibly, Gutenberg’s press did not make an appearance in Europe until 1450 A.D. The innovation of the Chinese can be credited with the invention of the earliest form of modern print as we know it today. Print has played a crucial role in our lives whether we notice it or not, even being a major contributor to the freedom of the American people.