The History of the Printing Press

The History of the Printing Press

Where would the world be without the printing press? Before this revolutionary invention, books, and other print materials were all handmade by highly-skilled scribes usually in monasteries and other exclusive institutions. They were expensive assets, only elite members of society could access. Fortunately, the development of this printing machine changed all of that and paved the way to the world we all know today.

So, who invented the printed press? Let’s take a look at this short timeline detailing the humble history of this marvellous machinery.

8th Century

Woodblock Printing – China

While no one knows when the first printing press was invented, scholars have found the oldest printed text in China inside a cave near the city of Dunhuang. They believe Chinese monks used woodblock printing to create the Buddhist book “The Diamond Sutra” in around 868 AD during the Tang Dynasty. This printing method applied texts on sheets of paper using hand-carved wood blocks with reversed characters. Japan and Korea also used this method using wooden or metal blocks for Buddhist or Taoist texts.

970 – 1051

First Moveable Type – China

A Chinese man named Bi Sheng created the first documented moveable type in Yingshan, Hubei province in China. The scientist Shen Kuo details in his 11th-century work Dream Pool Essays that Bi Sheng carved moveable individual letters from baked clay and arranged them onto an iron frame and plate. He used clay instead due to the ink absorption and cleaning problems of using wood.

However, as ingenious as Bi Sheng’s method of printing was, it didn’t go mainstream until many centuries later.


The Return of Wooden Type – China

The Chinese magistrate Wang Chen created his own moveable type using wood and a revolving table for typesetters for efficiency. He used his invention to print a series of books on agriculture called Nung Shu, which many consider the world’s first mass-produced books.

Late 14th Century

The Metal Moveable Type – Korea

Historical evidence suggests that Korea also created their own version of the moveable type using metals like bronze or tin. A Korean monk named Bae Gun printed a compilation of Buddhist sayings in a book called Jikji using the metallic moveable type in 1377. Many credit this two-volume book as the oldest book made using a metallic moveable type printing machine.

However, like with previous printing machines, this printing machine took a long time to catch in Asia. Many assume the cause was because of the many characters used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing. Using woodblock printing seemed more manageable to use since it took time to carve out and arrange the many characters in their writing systems.


Gutenberg’s Printing Press – Germany

Goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg created the first modern printing press we all know today. He began experimenting with printing during his exile in Strasbourg, France in 1440. A few years later after returning to Mainz, Germany he completed a fully functioning Gutenberg Press with hand-moulded metal printing matrices that enabled a moveable type-based printing system. Gutenberg also designed hand moulds for the production of moveable metal types for his printing machine. He also developed a new kind of ink made with linseed oil and soot which affixed better on the metal.

Gutenberg then produced the Gutenberg Bible using his invention, with funding from Johann Fust who many believe to be either a goldsmith or banker. He used 300 separate moulded letter blocks and 50,000 sheets of paper to create 180 copies of the bible.


Fust Acquires the Gutenberg Press – Germany

Several years later, Gutenberg lost the rights to all his printing equipment to Johann Fust. Fust lent Gutenberg eight hundred guilders in 1450 and another eight hundred two years to help the latter perfect his moveable-type printing press. However, Fust sued Gutenberg in 1455 for 2,026 guilders to recover his money with interest. The courts ruled in favour of Fust, making Gutenberg lose his invention.

Fust then set up his own printing firm with the help of former calligrapher Peter Shoeffer of Gernsheim, Germany. They produced an acclaimed version of The Book of Psalms which featured a three-colour title page and the very first use of a colophon, a section detailing the book’s publication information.


The Spread of the Printing Machine – Europe

The invention of the modern printing press spread across Europe, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Paris, and England, as different printers taught the trade to others. Printers all over Europe produced over 20 million volumes by the year 1500.

17th Century

The Rise of Literacy – Europe

The worldwide spread of printing dramatically increased literacy, not only with the elite but with the common folk as well. The production of over 150 to 200 million copies of printed books made the dissemination of knowledge and ideas faster and easier. Different sciences also flourished as scientists used printed books to exchange knowledge with one another.

Late 20th Century

The Invention of Digital Printing

The invention of computers allowed the printing press to evolve from analogue to digital. Digital printing enabled printers to print digital texts and images directly on different surfaces, including paper and fabric.

HP Inc. launched Indigo, the world’s first digital colour printing, in 1993. It gave customers high-quality prints, including flyers, booklets, and banners, for only a short time.

The printing press is one of the most significant inventions in human history. To this day, it still plays an instrumental role in advancing societies all around the world.

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