The printing press is a device that allows for the mass production of uniform printed matter, mainly text in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers. Created in China, the printing press revolutionized society there before being further developed in Europe in the 15th Century by Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the Gutenberg press.

When Was the Printing Press Invented?

No one knows when the first printing press was invented or who invented it, but the oldest known printed text originated in China during the first millennium A.D.

The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist book from Dunhuang, China from around 868 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty, is said to be the oldest known printed book.

The Diamond Sutra was created with a method known as block printing, which utilized panels of hand-carved wood blocks in reverse.

Some other texts have survived from Dunhuang as well, including a printed calendar from around A.D. 877, mathematic charts, a vocabulary guide, etiquette instruction, funeral and wedding guides, children’s educational material, dictionaries and almanacs.

It was during this period of early printing that rolled-up scrolls began to be replaced by book-formatted texts. Woodblock printing was also used in Japan and Korea at the time, and metal block printing was also developed at some point during that period, typically for Buddhist and Taoist texts.

Bi Sheng

Moveable type, which replaced panels of printing blocks with moveable individual characters that could be reused, was developed by Bi Sheng, from Yingshan, Hubei, China, who lived roughly from 970 to 1051 A.D.

The first moveable type was carved into clay and baked into hard blocks that were then arranged onto an iron frame that was pressed against an iron plate.

The earliest mention of Bi Sheng’s printing press is in the book Dream Pool Essays, written in 1086 by scientist Shen Kuo, who noted that his nephews came into possession of Bi Sheng’s typefaces after his death.

Shen Kuo explained that Bi Sheng did not use wood because the texture is inconsistent and absorbs moisture too easily, and also presents a problem of sticking in the ink. The baked clay cleaned-up better for reuse.

By the time of the Southern Song Dynasty, which ruled from 1127 to 1279 A.D., books had become prevalent in society and helped create a scholarly class of citizens who had the capabilities to become civil servants. Massive printed book collections also became a status symbol for the wealthy class.

Wang Chen

Woodtype made a comeback in 1297 when Ching-te magistrate Wang Chen printed a treatise on agriculture and farming practices called Nung Shu.

Wang Chen devised a process to make the wood more durable and precise. He then created a revolving table for typesetters to organize with more efficiency, which led to greater speed in printing.

Nung Shu is considered the world’s first mass-produced book. It was exported to Europe and, coincidentally, documented many Chinese inventions that have been traditionally attributed to Europeans.

Wang Chen’s method of woodblock type continued to be used by printers in China.

Johannes Gutenberg

In Europe, the printing press did not appear until 150 years after Wang Chen’s innovation. Goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg was a political exile from Mainz, Germany when he began experimenting with printing in Strasbourg (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1440. He returned to Mainz several years later and by 1450, had a printing machine perfected and ready to use commercially: The Gutenberg press.

Gutenberg Press

Integral to Gutenberg’s design was replacing wood with metal and printing blocks with each letter, creating the European version of moveable type.

In order to make the type available in large quantities and to different stages of printing, Gutenberg applied the concept of replica casting, which saw letters created in reverse in brass and then replicas made from these molds by pouring molten lead.

Researchers have speculated that Gutenberg actually used a sand-casting system that uses carved sand to create the metal molds. The letters were fashioned to fit together uniformly to create level lines of letters and consistent columns on flat media.

Gutenberg’s process would not have worked as seamlessly as it did if he had not made his own ink, devised to affix to metal rather than wood. Gutenberg was also able to perfect a method for flattening printing paper for use by using a winepress, traditionally used to press grapes for wine and olives for oil, retrofitted into his printing press design.

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg borrowed money from Johannes Fust to fund his project and in 1452, Fust joined Gutenberg as a partner to create books. They set about printing calendars, pamphlets and other ephemera.

In 1452, Gutenberg produced the one book to come out of his shop: a Bible. It’s estimated he printed 180 copies of the 1,300-paged Gutenberg Bible, as many as 60 of them on vellum. Each page of the Bible contained 42 lines of text in Gothic type, with double columns and featuring some letters in color.

For the Bible, Gutenberg used 300 separate molded letter blocks and 50,000 sheets of paper. Many fragments of the books survive. There are 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, and four complete copies of the vellum version.

Gutenberg’s Later Years

In 1455, Fust foreclosed on Gutenberg. In an ensuing lawsuit, all of Gutenberg’s equipment went to Fust and Peter Schoffer of Gernsheim, Germany, a former calligrapher.

Gutenberg is believed to have continued printing, probably producing an edition of the Catholicon, a Latin dictionary, in 1460. But Gutenberg ceased any efforts at printing after 1460, possibly due to impaired vision. He died in 1468.

Peter Schoffer

Schoffer made use of Gutenberg’s press as soon as it was acquired, and he is considered to be a technically better printer and typographer than Gutenberg. Within two years of seizing Gutenberg’s press, he produced an acclaimed version of The Book of Psalms that featured a three-color title page and varying types within the book.

One notable detail about this edition is the inclusion of a colophon for the very first time in history. A colophon is the section of a book that details publication information. Ten copies of this edition of The Book of Psalms are known to still exist.

Printing Spreads Through Europe

The spread of printing as a trade benefited from workers in Germany who had helped Gutenberg in his early printing experiments and then went on to become printers who taught the trade to others.

After Germany, Italy became the next recipient of Gutenberg’s invention when the printing press was brought to the country in 1465. By 1470, Italian printers began to make a successful trade in printed matter.

German printers were invited to set up presses at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1470, and the librarian there chose books to be printed, mostly textbooks, for the students. By 1476, other German printers had moved to Paris and set up private companies.

Spain welcomed German printers in 1473 in Valencia, spreading to Barcelona in 1475. In 1495, Portugal invited printers to Lisbon.

Gutenberg’s invention was brought to England in 1476 by William Caxton, an Englishman who had lived in Bruges, in what is now Belgium, for years. Caxton went to Cologne to learn to print in 1471 in order to set up a press in Bruges and publish his own translations of various works.

After returning to England, he set up a press in Westminster Abbey, where he worked as a printer for the monarchy until his death in 1491.

Printing Press Changes the World

The worldwide spread of the printing press meant a greater distribution of ideas that threatened the ironclad power structures of Europe.

In 1501, Pope Alexander VI promised excommunication for anyone who printed manuscripts without the church’s approval. Twenty years later, books from John Calvin and Martin Luther spread, bringing into reality what Alexander had feared.

Furthering that threat, Copernicus published his On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, which was seen as heresy by the church.

By 1605, the first official newspaper, Relation, was printed and distributed in Strasbourg. Newspapers appeared all across Europe, formalizing the printing press’ contribution to the growth of literacy, education and the far-reaching availability of uniform information for ordinary people.

HISTORY Vault: 101 Inventions That Changed the World

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The Invention of Printing. Theodore Low De Vinne.
500 Years of Printing. S.H. Steinberg.
Printer’s Error: An Irreverent History of Books. Rebecca Romney.
Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Paper and Printing. Joseph Needham, Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin.
Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.