Hands on History : Brief History of the Printing Press

By Shani Asokan | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021
Scribbler Hands on History : Brief History of the Printing Press

By Shani Asokan

Ceylon Today Features

We’re all using to seeing words on paper. You’re even reading them right now. Have you ever thought about how humans began printing? How did we transition from handwriting everything to developing a machine that could do the job for us, and make as many copies as was wanted?  

Today, we’re going to learn all about the printing press and how it came to be the machine that is widely used today in the mass production of printed matter such as books and newspapers. 


Interestingly no one really knows when the first printing press was invented. However, what we do know is that the oldest known printed text originated in China. This text is The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist book from Dunhuang, China, printed around 868 CE during the Tang Dynasty. 

The Diamond Sutra was printed using a method called block printing, which used hand-carved wood block panels. This style of printing was also used in Japan and Korea during this time. Around this same time, a similar method known as metal block printing was also developed.


Block printing was replaced by moveable type, which had individual moveable letters that could be reused and rearranged to create words. This method was developed by Bi Sheng from Hubei, China. The first type of moveable type was created using baked clay blocks that could be arranged into an iron frame. Baked clay was more efficient that wood as it did not absorb moisture easily, and could be reused.

However, wood printing made a comeback in 1297 when a county magistrate Wang Chen printed a book on farming and agriculture practices called Nung Shu. Wang Chen devised a method to make wood printing more efficient that involved a revolving table that typesetters could use to organise the blocks for use and reuse. The Nung Shu is considered the world’s first mass produced book.

In Europe, the first printing press did not make an appearance until 150 years after Wang Chen’s printing innovation. German inventor Johannes Gutenberg began experimenting with printing around 1440. Just 10 years later, by 1450, he had perfected a printing machine that was ready to be used commercially. It was called the Gutenberg Press.

The Gutenberg Press

This innovation replaced wood with metal, and created printing blocks for each letter following the moveable type method. The letters were fashioned so that they could fit together uniformly to create words in level lines and consistent columns. 

Gutenberg even created his own ink, a concoction suited to adhere easily to metal rather than wood. He also came up with a method for flattening printing paper using a winepress, a device traditionally used for pressing grapes in wine-making.

At first Gutenberg mainly printed pamphlets, calendars and other printed materials. The first and only book to come out of his press was a Bible, printed in 1452. It is estimated that he printed 180 copies of the text. Each page consisted of two columns of words, and even featured some letters in colour.

In the 1460s and beyond, printing began to spread through Europe, with Gutenberg’s press being brought to other countries outside of Germany. People learned the trade of printing and more and more printed material emerged. Some of the first books printed in Europe following Gutenberg’s Bible were textbooks for students.

A world-wide phenomenon

The spread of the printing press made information and ideas more readily available to everyone. Today, we are able to seek out information easily, in the form of printed material like books, or the internet. Back then, this was not the case. People were for the first time able to express themselves on a large-scale, and be exposed to the expression of ideas by others in the same way. This, led to widespread changes as existing ideas and power-structures began to be challenged.

By Shani Asokan | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021

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