A Season of Reason

Season of Reason - Day 5

The Printing Press


Today we are going to recognize the impact of the Printing Press in the advancement of science and technology.  Specifically, we are going to talk about moveable type printing which is defined as a printing press that has the ability to take letters and characters in and out of the printing plate and move them around to form a different word on another plate.  It may seem like a small difference between a Printing Press with a fixed plate but the ability to to swap letters and words out of a plate and put them into a new one caused an explosion of books in the medieval world.

If you ask a group of 100 people , “who invented the Printing Press?” most will answer Johanes Gutenberg.  Actually I hope that they answer Gutenberg.  I fear that many of the answers will be “I don’t know” or incorrect because of some fuzzy memory they have from middle school.  I guess it really doesn’t matter because Gutenberg wasn’t the first person to invent a moveable type Printing Press.  Just to be clear, Gutenberg did independently invent his printing press in around 1450 in Europe but he wasn’t the first to do it.  That honor goes to a Chinese inventor named Bi Sheng.

Bi Sheng was a man of “unofficial position” during the Song dynasty meaning he did not take the exams to become a scholar-official but still worked for the government in some some capacity.  Sometime after 1042 he invented the first moveable type Printing Press in the world.  The first generation of presses used either wood cut or ceramic characters and the ceramic type soon won out because the wood characters were not hardy enough to be used more than a few times.  Using ceramic makes sense if you think about it because the Chinese were world leaders at making porcelain and other pottery at that point in time.  

bi sheng.jpg

So why do most textbooks, history teachers, and state curriculum guides hold to the notion that Johannes Gutenberg is the inventor of the moveable type Printing Press?  Is it because the United States is culturally oriented to Europe instead of China?  Is it because Gutenberg’s press was more versatile and durable because he made his moveable characters with metal and Bi Sheng with ceramics?  Is it because of the self imposed isolation of the Ming empire after the Mongol takeover of China?  A strong case has been made by more than one academic for each of these reasons.  Allow me to advance my not so original idea as to why Bi Sheng is not recognized as the inventor of the Printing Press.  That reason is simple, Chinese is hard.

Functional literacy in Chinese demands knowledge of between 3000 and 4000 characters.  Historians reading ancient texts have to know over ten thousand words in order to understand what they are reading because, ya know, language changes over time as people invent and discard words.  The language that the Chinese use is not based on sounds like English.  It started as pictograms and evolved into characters that meant specific things.  Symbols were combined to create new words and the process took on a life of its own as the years went by.  There is more to it than what I just described but for the purposes of our discussion that is what you need to know.

There is an advantage to this language structure.  The symbols and characters spread all over Asia and are used in more than just China.  So, you could have people that spoke different dialects or even languages who would use the same writing.  They may say different words for “house” but when “house” was written down, it was written exactly the same way by speakers of different languages.  This is quite useful because it unites disparate peoples under a common written language and the central authority can distribute orders and information so that everybody can understand.  Also, this is a boon to trade  because it gives people from different regions a way to talk to each other.

The giant disadvantage to this language structure is that the reader needs to know at least 3000 characters to function in day to day life.  That means if you want to communicate with someone by printing a few paragraphs of text, you will need a keyboard with at least 3000 buttons.  Right now, I am typing on a keyboard that has only 72 buttons.  This is what the racks of letters that Chinese printers in the middle ages used to make basic messages in text.

In case you were curious, this is what a modern Chinese typographer deals with today.

The Chinese did invent the moveable type printing press before anyone else and they used it for many things.  Information distribution, printing money, and copying Confucian texts for would be scholar officials to study in preparation for their exams.  But the sheer size of the characters needed to compose a simple message made these machines expensive to produce and rare.  It is no wonder why this technique did not make it out of China onto the Silk Road like so many other Chinese inventions and advancements.  

Movable type’s potential was limited by the language of its inventor.  Chinese was not suited to exploit all of the gifts of the moveable type Printing Press.  Western languages were because their alphabets were based upon the sounds the letters made.  They are phonetic alphabets.  English has 26 letters and 42 basic sounds needed to communicate.  The sounds that exist outside of the traditional alphabet are given combinations of letters to make the necessary sounds like /sh/ or /ch/.  We know that many words in English do not sound the way that they are spelled but these instances do not require that an entire new character is created, we just need to memorize the irregular spellings.  

Yes, I am aware that Gutenberg did not speak English.  All the languages of Europe that I am aware of share the same qualities as English in this regard.

Once Gutenberg was created metal letters that could be moved from one plate to another, an information revolution was born.  Before the Printing Press was invented it took monks years to copy them by hand.  Recently a man in Britain set out to copy one himself.  It took him four years working 14 hours a day.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2320210/Man-copies-Bible-hand-working-14-hours-day-years.html

The original Gutenberg bibles took a while to print too but they didn’t take as long as a person did to copy by hand.  

The printing revolution had two long lasting effects.  The first has to do with Marco Polo’s tales about travelling to China in the late 1200s and early 1300s.  Marco Polo’s book was one of the most famous books in in Europe in the 1300s and 1400s when people were still copying books by hand.  Once Gutenberg’s printing presses started churning out books, Marco Polo’s tales became a bestseller trailing only the Bible in number of copies printed and sold.  One of these books ended up in Christopher Columbus’s hands in the late 1400s and inspired him to look for a shorter way to the China that Marco Polo described.  When Columbus ran into the new world in October of 1492 he had two books in his possession, The Adventures of Marco Polo and The Bible.  Both were printed on presses like the one that Gutenberg designed.

The other effect of the printing revolution that Gutenberg started in 1450 was the quick distribution of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses all over Germany in 1512.  Without the rapid distribution of this important document the Protestant Revolution may not have happened.  

Within one lifetime, the moveable type Printing Press designed by Johannes Gutenberg helped unite the hemispheres and split the Christian church.  Those two events alone would make the Printing Press one of the most influential inventions of humankind.  Add onto that list of accomplishments the sheer volume of knowledge that was printed into books and shared all over the world.  The printed word has directly caused every human triumph in the last 500 years.  Not just ‘had a hand’ in the invention of new technology but actual directly influenced the creation of these inventions because they stored knowledge of previous inventions that were needed to advance science and technology.  Without printed books there would have been no Scientific Method, Declaration of Independence, Theory of Gravity, or even the Internet.

Moveable type printing and books have given mankind more treasures than any other technology so far.  The internet has a shot at being more influential than the printed word but it still was created by a bunch of engineers using books written by scientists who paved the way.

Today's fun activity is simple.  READ SOMETHING!  Don’t just read something on the internet, your computer, or your phone.  Read something that is printed on paper.  Get the oldest book you can find and open it.  Treat it with the reverence it deserves.  Try to learn something while you are at it.