Did the Chinese Invent the Printing Press?
Debates over who invented the press are often plagued by a lack of definition, so let’s start off with a definition of what we generally mean by a “printing press.”
First, what the Chinese (and Koreans) had 1,500 years ago (that is, long before Gutenberg), was block printing. Of course, the ancient Greeks had block printing, as did those cultural Xerox machines the Romans. Gutenberg had been a block printer prior to deciding that it could be vastly improved — and those vast improvements are what separate the printing press from the centuries of block printing that preceded it.
Confusingly, many people who refer to “the press” are referring to block printing, not Gutenberg’s press. Block printing (and all sorts of similar printing) was often performed on a variation of a grape press. So when someone uses the term “press,” are they referring to grapes or blocks or what? (Presses of all sorts — grape, nut, block — were very common throughout the world from deep into BC up through the 20th century).
Second, the keys to Gutenberg’s press are scale, speed, quality, and endurance. His press could output the work of 50 scriveners annually, and improvements quickly increased the scale. The balance between quality and endurance is important. Gutenberg’s goal was to produce print that was of the same quality as a scrivener’s, which meant he was aiming for the highest quality (compared to low-quality block printing). The problem was combining such high-quality printing with speed. Generally, you could build high-precision machines (e.g. a clock) or high-endurance machines (e.g. a plow). Technologically, building a machine that was high-precision and high-endurance was nearly impossible.
So, what are the components of “the press”?
1. Metal alloy type. Before Gutenberg, type (or blocks) were usually wood. This was true in Europe and China. The problem with woods is endurance. Softer woods could be used because they transferred ink better, but they often had to be replaced after 100 pressings. Woods also tended to malform (i.e. flatten) after significant pressings. Gutenberg experimented first with woods (such as apple wood), then with known metals. Dissatisfied with the results, he developed a new alloy.
2. Ink. Most inks simply took too long to dry, which would impair the machine’s capacity for speed. Gutenberg developed a new kind of ink that was high precision — looked like something a scrivener in a monastery would use — and yet dried quickly.
3. Precision. Understandably, people don’t think much about screws. The concept is fairly straightforward — the Greeks theorized about them (and the fact that a screw is vastly superior to a nail), but making a high-precision screw is actually difficult. Gutenberg’s’ press would require a high-precision screw so that the plate could be adjusted to precisely the correct height. This enables quality and scale.
4. Phonemes. The secret to a printing press is phonemes. Depending on the alphabet, phonemes meant you could make something around 25 types, plus a few more for punctuation, etc., and then recreate any written text. Non-phonemic languages cannot be represented by a Gutenberg printing press — those are just block printing presses. (Yes, they may be block printing presses at scale, but those existed everywhere.) The phrase “moveable type” references phonemes; everything else is “moveable block,” which is not much different than what the Greeks used to mint coins in the 8th c. BC.
With that combination of inventions, Gutenberg’s press put monastic scriveners out of business overnight (which should make you sad because most scriveners were young boys — imagine the wave of unemployment among 10-year-olds). A press and four men could produce the output of an entire monastery. When a Paris magistrate heard how many books Gutenberg’s press could produce, Gutenberg’s business partner was charged with being in league with the devil. The output of Gutenberg’s press — in quality and scale — created massive upheaval in the printing world.
What doesn’t matter: paper. Most presses printed on all kinds of media — paper, vellum, etc. And “paper” prior to the 19th century was usually made from cotton. Wood pulp paper wasn’t widely used until the 19th century. The quality of the “paper” certainly made a difference, but generally a good press handled all kinds of media.
1. Metal alloy type. The Chinese experimented with standard metals and some known alloys but never got it right. Most Chinese printing was thus with wood or ceramic blocks. No, ceramic isn’t great at transferring ink but it was often used (print houses often employed artists to manually touch-up printing mistakes).
2. Phonemes. This was their great weakness. A Chinese print house would often require over 100,000 blocks whereas a Western print house often had a few hundred types (multiple types of commonly used letters and punctuation). This meant that a Chinese printing operation required substantial labor and was only economically viable at massive scale; whereas Western print houses often produced small runs of a few hundred books, such runs would have been a waste of the massive labor required in China. Because of this, Western print houses could (and often did) print anything — it was fairly easy to run off a few hundred books. This created a dynamic knowledge network of ideas.
The “scale” that’s important is not whether the press could print 10,000 copies of something — both Western and Chinese presses could. The scale of importance is the number of operating presses — so not the scale of a press run but rather scaling the number of presses. With Gutenberg’s press, a random dude in the 1680s could order a press, have it delivered, and then operate a newspaper with the help of his wife and no one else. That scenario happened many times in colonial North America and that’s precisely what could never happen with a Chinese press (it’s also why newspapers in Chinese were largely unknown in China until the 20th century, while Canton alone had several locally printed English newspapers in the 18th century).
Of course, this also explains the development and spread of the concept of “free speech” in the West. As printed material flooded the West, literacy spread. Increasingly, most could read and write. In conjunction, it seemed that every anti-government radical or free-thinking preacher could get their hands on a press. It was a contagion that many princes and priests attempted to contain and eradicate — but it was too widespread. And so, this scaling of literacy and printing presses had to be incorporated into a functioning society, and thus was born free speech — not so much a gift from the elites but a capitulation to the reality of the scale of the press.
Proof of the difference between the Western press and the Chinese press is that Gutenberg’s press created a large market for books and massively increased the value of literacy such that colonial New England had a higher literacy rate in the 1750s than China does today. Further, the Chinese only achieved widespread literacy in the last 15 years, particularly among the young — due to the fact that the young experience the written word digitally, and they use the Latin alphabet digitally (which phonetically translates into Chinese). I previously wrote about how China’s collapse starting in the late 18th c. was in part due to population pressures, but it was also in part due to the fact that literacy was increasingly valuable, and the written Chinese language just isn’t conducive to widespread literacy — it’s difficult to master. This lesson isn’t lost on other countries in the region. Historically, the Vietnamese used a version of Chinese characters to write their language, and yet recently the Vietnamese have officially and widely replaced Chinese characters with the Latin alphabet.
So perhaps Gutenberg invented nothing because the great catalyst for his press was the family of languages — all using phonetic alphabets — that were built for scale. At its core, his press simply leveraged the economies of scale permitted by phonemes. Then again, his genius may be in recognizing the massive advantage of an alphabet.
The Koreans largely progressed along with the Chinese while the Japanese — nothing against the Japanese — but they largely just copied the Koreans. Ceramic block printing was common in Chinese until the last century.
Gutenberg’s press was venture funded. Always curious when Silicon Valley types think they invented venture funding … some Mainz bankers would like a word with you….
About Nathan Allen
Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….