Life before the printing press
Before the printing press was invented, any writings and drawings had to be completed painstakingly by hand. It wasn’t just anyone who was allowed to do this. Such work was usually reserved for scribes who lived and worked in monasteries. The monasteries had a special room called a "scriptorium." There, the scribe would work in silence, first measuring and outlining the page layouts and then carefully copying the text from another book. Later the illuminator would take over to add designs and embellishments to the pages. In the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, books were usually only owned by monasteries, educational institutions or extremely rich people. Most books were religious in nature. In some cases, a family might be lucky enough to own a book, in which case it would be a copy of the Bible.
The first type of printing press was invented by a Chinese man named Bi Sheng. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg of Germany improved upon the original printing press. Johannes Gutenberg is commonly credited as the inventor of the movable printing press. Indeed, the German goldsmith’s 15th-century contribution to the technology was revolutionary — enabling the mass production of books and the rapid dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe. However, the history of printing begins long before Gutenberg’s time.
Chinese monks and blocks
Nearly 600 years before Gutenberg, Chinese monks were setting ink to paper using a method known as block printing, in which wooden blocks are coated with ink and pressed to sheets of paper. One of the earliest surviving books printed in this fashion — an ancient Buddhist text known as “The Diamond Sutra” — was created in 868 during the Tang (T’ang) Dynasty (618-909) in China. The book, which was sealed inside a cave near the city of Dunhuang, China, for nearly a thousand years before its discovery in 1900, is now housed in the British Library in London.
The carved wooden blocks used for this early method of printing were also used in Japan and Korea as early as the eighth century. Private printers in these places used both wood and metal blocks to produce Buddhist and Taoist treatises and histories in the centuries before movable type was invented.
An important advancement to woodblock printing came in the early eleventh century, when a Chinese peasant named Bi Sheng (Pi Sheng) developed the world’s first movable type. Though Sheng himself was a commoner and didn’t leave much of a historical trail, his ingenious method of printing, which involved the production of hundreds of individual characters, was well-documented by his contemporary, a scholar and scientist named Shen Kuo.
|A printer demonstrates a Gutenberg press.|
Credit: upstudio / Shutterstock.com
Gutenberg’s invention made a dramatic impact when it reached the public. At first, the noble classes looked down on it. To them, hand-inked books were a sign of luxury and grandeur, and it was no match for the cheaper, mass-produced books. Thus, printed materials were at first more popular with the lower classes. When word spread about the printing press, other print shops opened and soon it developed into an entirely new trade. Printed texts became a new way to spread information to vast audiences quickly and cheaply. Academics benefited from this dissemination of scholarly ideas and even politicians found that they could garner the public’s interest through printed pamphlets. An important side effect was that people could read and increase their knowledge more easily now, whereas in the past it was common for people to be quite uneducated. This increased the discussion and development of new ideas. Another significant effect was that the printing press was largely responsible for Latin’s decline as other regional languages became the norm in locally printed materials.