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Printed books existed nearly 600 years before Gutenberg's Bible

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It is a little-known but undisputed historical fact that Johannes Gutenberg did not invent the printing press. Though the Gutenberg Bible was certainly the first mass produced printed work, it was hardly the first printed book — nor was it even the first made using movable type. Chinese and Korean inventors had been producing printed books for centuries before Gutenberg was born.

One of the truisms of Western history is that a German guy named Gutenberg invented the printing press, changing the course of civilization forever. There is no doubt that Gutenberg's printing press was a novel technology. But to say that he invented the printing press is like saying Steve Jobs or Bill Gates invented the computer. He certainly made it a commercially available device, but Gutenberg's role was as a popularizer and entrepreneur. As a technology, the printing press has its origins in Asia, where it existed for centuries before making its way to the West. Gutenberg's real genius was in adapting the technology for a Western market, capitalizing on a few quirks of the Roman alphabet to bring printed books to the mainstream.


What is a "Printed Book"?

Though we can claim printed books existed since the first letters were pressed into clay from stone carvings, generally historians call woodblocks, or woodcuts, the first printing mechanism. The printer would carve letters and pictures into a flat block of wood, ink the wood, and then transfer the images to cloth or paper by pressing the wood against it. If you've ever used a rubber stamp, it's the same idea — except using wood instead of rubber. Woodblock printing might be painstaking, but once you had your carved wood, you could print several copies of each page from it before the wood was no longer usable. Plus, you would be guaranteed that every copy of the book would be exactly the same, unlike books copied by scribes who often made mistakes or introduced weird jokes into the text.


There are examples of woodblock printing going back almost 1800 years, but the earliest woodblock-printed paper book that we can reliably date is the Chinese book, Diamond Sutra (pictured above), created in 868. You can see it on display now at the British Library. Even after hundreds of years, the book's lettering and illustrations are crisp and clear.


The Movable Type Revolution

After centuries of woodblock printing, a humble man named Bi Sheng invented movable type in the 1000s. Movable type is a system where each character (or letter, if you're in a Western context) is carved or cast into a separate piece of material. These characters are then arranged on a block, inked, and pressed against paper. The characters can be rearranged as much as you like and reused — hence, the term "movable type."


We don't have any examples of the books he produced, but we do have a remarkable description of the mechanism he invented, from a contemporary of Bi's named Shen Kua:

During the reign of Chingli, [1041–1048] Bi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.


Over 350 years before Gutenberg was even born, the Chinese were experimenting with the technology that the German would later turn into a publishing empire.


Perhaps the best-known example of Chinese movable type printed books is Wang Zhen's Book of Agriculture, printed in 1313. Wang improved on Bi's device by using wooden moveable type (and possibly bronze) to set part of his book. Not only is the book remarkable for how it was printed, but also for being one of the most comprehensive records of Chinese science during the 14th century. Wang describes movable type in this book, noting that printers were also experimenting with tin for use in movable type devices.


Then, in 1377, we have evidence that a Korean monk named Baegun invented metal moveable type technology to produce the Jikiji (pictured), a book that collected pieces of Zen wisdom from great Buddhist teachers. With metal movable type, each character or letter would be cast as a separate metal piece, and then reused.

Gutenberg's True Innovation

It's not known whether Gutenberg was aware of Baegun's movable type innovations, or Wang's techniques, but his printing press certainly duplicated their movable type technologies. Given that there was a lively trade between East and West during this period in history, it's very possible that he had seen printing presses from Asia or heard about them.


Regardless of Gutenberg's inspiration, movable type was a natural technology for Western languages, because you'd only need a few dozen cast pieces to represent all our letters, plus some numbers and punctuation. In Chinese, movable type printers would need hundreds, or even thousands, of characters. So it would have been far easier for Gutenberg to streamline the printing press than it would have been for his Chinese and Korean counterparts.


Gutenberg cast his letters in metal, the way Baegun had, and added to his machine a screw-type press to stamp the inked letters against the paper. The press was hand-operated, and each piece of paper had to be placed in it one at a time. Still, the device was mechanized enough to make it cheap and efficient for Gutenberg to print books for the masses. As I said earlier, it's probably best to think of Gutenberg's printing press in relation to previous ones the same way we think of the desktop PC in relation to mainframes. He managed to change the world with an already-existing technology by turning it into something that anybody could buy and use.

As many bitter scientists have learned, history often credits innovations to the people who made them popular, rather than the people who actually dreamed them up. Gutenberg was no exception. He changed the world by manufacturing printing presses, not by inventing them.