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Printing Past to Present

Updated on May 8, 2012

While German printer Johannes Gutenberg was fooling around with his movable type during the mid 15th century the Koreans had already established a foundry to cast movable type in bronze some 200 years earlier. This major development in civilization seems to have been overlooked in many history books with Gutenberg getting all the credit. In actuality, he was more of a “Johnny come lately” in printing innovations.

However, if one really wants to get down to brass tacks, it was the Chinese who first discovered the principles in 175 AD. The emperor of China ordered the classics of Confucianism to be carved in stone for posterity. They unexpectedly discover prints can be made simply by placing a sheet of paper over the carving and rubbing charcoal or graphite over it.

As far as more refined printing techniques it was the Buddhists in Korea and Japan who made the early breakthroughs. The world's earliest known printed document is in Korea. It’s a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in 750 AD.

This was closely followed in Japan in 768 AD when a Buddhist empress commissioned a huge edition of a religious document believed to be a prayer or lucky charm to be printed. It is said that the project took six years to complete with over a million copies being printed, many of which have survived to this day.

However, the earliest known printed “book” in 868 AD was Chinese and discovered in a cave at Dunhuang, Chinain 1899. It was actually a 16 foot long scroll, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text was that of the Diamond Sutra, and on the first sheet was also the world's first known printed illustration, an enthroned Buddha surrounded by attendants. The book was printed in what would now be called a woodcut.

Printing from wood blocks was a laborious process with having to carve so many characters in reverse on wood blocks. It was even more difficult considering the number of characters in Chinese script. But that’s the way it was done before the introduction of moveable type. Chinese printers experimented with this concept by casting their characters in fired pottery clay. But clay was just not strong enough for the job. Once again, the innovation seems to have been pioneered in China but perfected in Korea with their use of bronze.

Using bronze, type the Koreans created the world’s earliest known book printed from movable type in 1377. It is a collection of Buddhist texts. Two volumes were published but only one survives. Presently kept at the National Library of France, it shows date of printing as well as names of the priests who compiled the type.

However, at this time the Koreans were also struggling with another problem. They were still using Chinese script, with its vast number of characters. So, in 1443 they created their own national alphabet. By coincidence, this is also the decade Gutenberg was fooling around with his moveable type concept.

Gutenberg’s process of printing, involved setting individual metallic letters by hand to form text. Still a laborious task, but an improvement over carving, and the letters were reusable.

It was the introduction of the linotype in 1886 that revolutionized the printing industry. Instead of assembling type by hand, a keyboard device was used to cast lines of characters automatically. Further developments in monotype made printing even faster. The monotype system was actually invented by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, a contemporary of Rembrandt, in the 1600s and basically involves imaging techniques.

Up until the 1960s, printing was a messy affair using inks. But with the advent of computers and electronic composing means, the linotype became outdated and most are now in museums.

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    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 

      6 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      I only knew Gutenberg until now ..!! Really a very good hub with relevant information...

      Must be and is Shared all across!!

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      The hard part was carving out all those little letters...:-)

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Very interesting hub on the history of printing.

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