The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result.
Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground – a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing.
Subsequent emperors engrave other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a colour) against the white of the paper – much more pleasant to the eye than white on black.
This process is printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.
Printed Buddhist texts in Korea and Japan: AD 750-768
The invention of printing is a striking achievement of Buddhists in east Asia. Korea takes the lead. The world’s earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in Korea in AD 750.
This is closely followed in Japan by a bold experiment in mass circulation (precisely the area in which printed material has the advantage over manuscript). In AD 768, in devoutly Buddhist Nara, the empress commissions a huge edition of a lucky charm or prayer. It is said that the project takes six years to complete and that the number of copies printed, for distribution to pilgrims, is a million. Many have survived.
The first printed book: AD 868
The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T’ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.
It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world’s first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.
The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for ‘finishing stroke’) at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Confucian ideals: ‘Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.’
The printing of Wang Chieh’s scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the cave at Dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.
Cutting round the characters: 9th – 11th century
The separate sheets making up the Diamond Sutra are what would now be called woodcuts. They are printed from pieces of wood in which the white areas on the page have been carefully cut away, until the remaining parts of the flat surface represent (in reverse) the shapes to be printed, regardless of whether they are to be text or image.
Printing is achieved by covering the flat surface with ink, placing a piece of paper on it and rubbing the back of the paper.
Chinese publishing: 10th – 11th century
Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond Sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete Standard Histories since the time of Sima Qian.
The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labour, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.
Movable type: from the 11th century
Movable type (separate ready-made characters or letters which can be arranged in the correct order for a particular text and then reused) is a necessary step before printing can become an efficient medium for disseminating information.
The concept is experimented with in China as early as the 11th century. But two considerations make the experiment unpractical. One is that the Chinese script has so many characters that type-casting and type-setting become too complex. The other is that the Chinese printers cast their characters in clay and then fire them as pottery, a substance too fragile for the purpose.
Type foundry in Korea: c.1380
In the late 14th century, several decades before the earliest printing in Europe, the Koreans establish a foundry to cast movable type in bronze. Unlike earlier Chinese experiments with pottery, bronze is sufficiently strong for repeated printing, dismantling and resetting for a new text.
The Koreans at this time are using the Chinese script, so they have the problem of an unwieldy number of characters. They solve this in 1443 by inventing their own national alphabet, known as han’gul. By one of the strange coincidences of history this is precisely the decade in which Gutenberg is experimenting with movable type far away in Europe, which has enjoyed the advantage of an alphabet for more than 2000 years.
Saints and playing cards: AD c.1400
In about 1400, more than six centuries after its invention in the east, the technique of printing from wood blocks is introduced in Europe. As in the east, the images are printed by the simple method of laying a piece of paper on a carved and inked block and then rubbing its back to transfer the ink. And as in the east, the main market is holy images for sale to pilgrims. Playing cards are another early part of the western trade.
Later in the 15th century, technical advances are made in Germany which rapidly transform printing from a cottage industry to a cornerstone of western civilization.
Gutenberg and western printing: AD 1439 – 1457
The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg’s stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.
By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.
Gutenberg’s great achievement in the story of printing has several components. One is his development of the printing press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the press is not new. But existing presses (for wine, oil or paper) exert slow pressure – uneconomical in printing.
More significant are Gutenberg’s skills with metal (his original trade is that of a goldsmith). These enable him to master the complex stages in the manufacture of individual pieces of type, which involve creating a master copy of each letter, devising the moulds in which multiple versions can be cast, and developing a suitable alloy (type metal) in which to cast them.
All this skilful technology precedes the basic work of printing – that of arranging the individual letters, aligned and well spaced, in a forme which will hold them firm and level to transfer the ink evenly to the paper.
The printing process involves complex problems at every stage, and the brilliance of the first known products from Gutenberg’s press suggest that earlier efforts must have been lost. If not, the decision to make his first publication a full-length Bible in Latin (the Vulgate), printed to the standards of the best black-letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed.
No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.
These first two publications from Germany’s presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.