A Brief History of Printing

By Winn Apple   |   Published October, 2013

Gutenberg’s Bible wasn’t first…heresy!

Let’s all take a deep breath. Lower your pitch forks. No need to organize a mob or gather a few choice stones to hurl.

I think we can all agree on one thing- that the invention and subsequent spread of the printing press are among the most influential, if not the single most influential, events in the second millennium AD, revolutionizing the way people conceive and describe the world they live in.

In recent years, Printing has fallen in popularity as a form of communication. With Global Warming and the protection and sustainability of our planet and all her resources being one of the biggest issues we face, many have turned to the digital world for its speedy, chemical and paper free trail -though the electronic world has its own adverse impact on the health of our planet- hazards which are now becoming evident.

As often is the case, that which holds our highest regard is susceptible to the proverbially fall from grace. But before we turn our backs on that which has aptly recorded our worlds’ history, diligently taught our children, provided endless hours of reading pleasure and cushioned the contents of our cardboard boxes marked fragile- crumpled wads of its Sunday best, systematically wedged between wine glasses and porcelain figurines- let’s take a moment to reflect.

Stroll with me along memory lane, revisiting the birth of this incredible tool and uncovering the true identity of the 1st printed book in history.

The printing press, invented in the Holy Roman Empire by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, produced what some authorities have commonly cited as the first printed text –Gutenberg’s Bible. Whether one can say with conviction that this statement is indeed true may depend on whom you ask and what they consider the definition of printing to be.

One may consider the transfer of any characters to paper, clay, fabric and other materials to be a process of printing – a system established thousands of years ago. Taking this position, woodblock printing would certainly make the list of the earliest forms of printing. Many nimble fingers worked arduously to hand carve wood blocks for every page of the Diamond Sutra – which is the oldest surviving example of a printed book containing a verifiable date – dating back to 868 CE.

For those to whom wood block printing does not fulfill their definition, let’s keep trucking along.

Obviously, the more common association to the term implies mass production, involving plates, blocks and moveable type used to transfer ink onto a surface at repetition. Movable type certainly cuts down on the sheer volume of work. With no need to whittle wooden pages, countless fingers are spared the painful affliction of blisters! All of these characters and letters can just be reused and rearranged for the next print.

There is some evidence that the first movable type –which was ceramic–was invented in China by Bi Sheng around 1050 CE. Unfortunately there are no surviving texts, but it is very likely that the oldest printed books are Buddhist texts from the 11th century. It is thought that the ceramic type didn’t have a long shelf life and the Chinese returned to wood block printing as the primary method.

So who brings home the gold? Korea. They can claim the distinguished honor of producing the very first movable metal print book. Printed in 1377, Jikji – a book of Zen Buddhist teachings- passed the finish line a whopping 78 years before Gutenberg’s Bible. The Jikji originally consisted of two volumes totaling 307 chapters. What remains, is safely stored at the National museum of Korea.

In this modern age of speed and technology, take a moment to revisit your own relationship with the printed word and all the wonders and joys that this invention has brought into our lives.

For me, the iPad just doesn’t compare to losing yourself in your favorite second hand book store, leisurely strolling along the isles of previously enjoyed gems -or the anticipation, building as you walk home, debating which of your newly acquired treasures you’ll dive into first.

You curl up with your new paperback, settling into an oversized chair– a few pages in you begin to see the pages dog-eared and well creased from previous readers. You smile. This literary journey has been enjoyed and passed on for you to discover as will the next reader who pulls it from the shelf.

Whether it be electronic or paper, remember that all choices have a cost and benefit. We at Bacchus Press will continue to work towards keeping the option of printing an eco-friendly choice – providing printing you can feel good about.

Until next time, keep it Green!

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About the Author

In addition to crafting content and blogs, Winn Apple writes short stories and novellas for middle-grade readers. You can find her short stories along with a portfolio on her site, MysticJunkyard.com or on her soon to release website, snugbuggle.com – the best darn place to find short stories for kids.


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