BY GIANNA STANLEY
With August being Inventor’s month, I thought it would be important to highlight one of the most important inventions to date, which is something that allows this very article to be brought to you in magazine format – the printing press.
The printing press is a device that allows for the mass production of printed items, such as newspapers, books, and magazines. The first traces of this invention was seen in China, and was further developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist book from China from around 868 AD during the Dunhang Dynasty is said to be the first book ever printed, which is pretty impressive if you think about the fact that the internet was only invented in the late 1900s. They used the method of block printing, which meant that they had to hand carve blocks of wood in reverse in order to print what was needed. Other printed items from the Dunhang Dynasty have survived, which include calendars, mathematical charts, etiquette instructions, dictionaries, funeral, wedding and vocabulary guides, almanacs, and even children’s educational material! These materials don’t differ too much from what we print nowadays, the only difference is the method by which they are printed.
Around 1050AD, Bi Sheng from China managed to invent a more efficient way by taking the idea of block printing, but instead creating individual letters that could be reused to create the texts – this was called the ‘moveable type’. The first moveable type was carved into pieces of clay which was then baked into hard blocks. Cleverly, they decided against using wood because they absorbed the moisture much more than clay, which made clay more appropriate to reuse. By 1200 AD, during the Southern Song Dynasty, books and printed material soon became a symbol for wealth and high social status.
Books and printed material soon became a symbol for wealth and high social status.
By 1297, we saw the world’s first mass produced book. Wang Chen developed a new method which made wood more durable and precise, and he organised the letters on a revolving table for typesetters to use more easily. This process sounds oddly familiar – almost like typing on your keyboard. He tried out this new method with an agricultural treatise, which was printed and distributed across Europe. Chen’s woodblock type can still be seen in use in many printers in China.
Johannes Gutenberg is usually cited as the inventor of the printing press, however, we can see that it had already existed long before he came along in the 1400s. Indeed, his contribution to the technology was revolutionary and much more efficient than the previous inventions, which enabled the mass production of books and expansion of knowledge across the world. What differentiated Gutenberg’s design was the use of metal and printing blocks with each letter. He used the idea of replica casting which saw letters created in reverse and then replicas made from these molds by pouring melted lead. Sounds much more complicated than using wooden blocks, huh? He probably owes the success of the European moveable type to the creation of his own ink, which was better suited to metal. He was also able to flatten paper to make the printing process easier by using a winepress!
Gutenberg’s printing invention soon reached Italy, Spain, and England by 1476. William Claxton was an Englishman living in Germany who learned the skill of printing in Burges. He returned to England and set up his own press in Westminster Abbey, where he continued to work for the British monarchy. You may think that the larger availability of information was something to be celebrated, but in the 1500s, this meant excommunication for any publications that were unauthorised by the Church.
He made the printing process easier by using a winepress!
Of course, we have moved far from these oppressive times. The invention of the printing press has not only helped create a more literate community, but helped spread education, advice, and allowed people to express their creativity. Without the printing press, we would not have access to many historical facts, let alone literary classics. It was an extremely beneficial invention during the war periods, to allow the people at home to gain information about what was happening. From 868 AD with individual blocks to 2021 modern day printers – we cannot take any printed material for granted, it is essential that we preserve knowledge.