Who Invented The First Printing Press?

Hint: It’s not Johannes Gutenberg.
Greek letters as you might see them inserted into a printing press

The printing press ushered in one of the greatest shifts in human society. Finally, you could disseminate texts and ideas without relying on a monastery filled with scribes, who labored for hours simply to make a few copies of the Bible. It was the first in a long line of technologies that have helped globalize the world, for better or worse.

If you were raised in an English-speaking school, you’ve probably heard one name associated with this marvelous device: Johannes Gutenberg. The German inventor is indeed credited with creating the first printing press using movable type — but only in Europe. This isn’t to diminish his accomplishments; he simply wasn’t the first. To find the earliest printing process in the world, you have to go further east, to Asia.

The Dawn Of Print

It is part of the self-mythology of China that it introduced a number of concepts to the world that changed history, often called the Four Great Inventions: gunpowder, the compass, paper and printing. And it’s true: China started printing around 2,000 years ago, setting the basis for reproducible writing for all humankind.

Early printing was a somewhat rudimentary process. For something to be considered printing at all, it just means that an image is “pressed” onto some medium in a way that can be done over and over again. The earliest form involved using ink on stone or wooden tablets that were then pressed onto cloth. This method was used in China during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from the third century BCE to the third century CE. It was clearly printing, but a far cry from what would later develop.

The biggest developments in printing over the following centuries were mostly in the materials being used. In the seventh century CE, Chinese printers started replacing cloth with paper (which was another of the Four Great Inventions mentioned above). Woodblocks were the most common type of printing material, but they weren’t perfect. Over time, the wood would become damaged with use, and the process of making an entirely new woodblock was time consuming. Fortunately, a solution was found.

The Creation Of Movable Type

China was also where the world’s first movable type took shape. Instead of making a whole block with lots of characters, movable type allowed printers to arrange individual characters that could then be shifted around and reused. That meant you didn’t need a different block for each page, and if any one piece got damaged, it wasn’t as difficult to swap out. 

The earliest movable type developed around 1040 CE, and various printers experimented with both wood and ceramic varieties. Ceramic quickly became the generally preferred material because wood could easily warp, though ceramic pieces also got damaged easily. It would be another few centuries before they found a material that would set the standard for the world: metal.

Metal movable type didn’t come from China, however; it came from Korea. The early forms of printing had spread to Korea, along with the spread of Buddhism, but it was in the Goryeo Dynasty of the 13th century that movable type developed. It was made out of necessity, because at the time Korea was being attacked by invading Mongols. To keep their most important texts from being destroyed, Koreans needed a way to reproduce them quickly.

To the best of our knowledge today, the credit for movable type’s invention goes to civil minister Choe Yun-ui, who printed the Buddhist text called Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun using bronze movable type. By most definitions, this was the earliest printing press in the world. Printing the book was an arduous project, but the 50-volume text was successfully printed by 1250, and bronze movable type caught on. While there’s a record of these early texts existing, the first books made with metal movable type have been lost. The oldest text printed with movable type to have survived to today is Jikji, another Buddhist text that was printed in 1377.

The Invention Of The Printing Press In Europe

In 1450, struggling German inventor Johannes Gutenberg put into operation a printing press. Four years later, he would print what became known as the Gutenberg Bible, which is really what helped kick off the age of print. This does raise one question: would Gutenberg have had any way to know about the metal movable type already in regular use over in Korea (and swiftly spreading through the rest of Asia)?

Without dragging the answer out for you, it’s possible, but there’s no historical evidence. The Mongol Empire — the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world — had invaded Korea and adopted its printing systems. This invention then could have traveled from one end of the empire to the other, because by the end of the 13th century the Mongol Empire did go from Korea all the way to Germany. In the absence of any hard evidence, however, most people write off the printing press to the idea of multiple discovery. It’s not impossible to imagine two different people eventually landing on the idea of movable type.

We know, in any case, that Gutenberg didn’t invent printing from whole cloth. There were printing processes in place at the time that would have inspired the inventor. Gutenberg did become the first European to use movable type, and he created a convenient mechanical system that allowed for the quick replication of texts.

If anything, the simultaneous creation of movable type printing presses shows that the spread of printed writing is more complicated than you might have thought. Johannes Gutenberg certainly helped ignite the print age with his invention, but the printing press was the result of countless efforts to improve upon writing systems.

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