Skip to content

Writing and Reading as Technology (13): Erik Engheim on Gutenberg vs earlier Asian printing technologies

Hat tip: HN
With apologies to subscribers who received post 14 of this series out of order due to my enthusiasm for the subject matter…

… the first movable type got invented in China around 1040 by Bi Sheng. The types were made from porcelain material. Later wooden movable types were developed by Wang Zhen around 1297. Koreans evolved the movable type technology further. In 1234 the first books known to have been printed using metallic types was published in Korea. It happened during the Goryeo Dynasty.

So, why are we giving Gutenberg all the credit for inventing printing? Because Gutenberg served the same role for printing as James Watt did for the steam engine. Neither of the men were the original inventors of the concept, but they made improvements so radical that they made the technology transformational.

Gutenberg made a mechanical machine, a printing press, which allowed printers to greatly speed up the printing process. Asian printing in contrast involved rubbing paper into types covered in ink. It was not done using a machine, and it was not done using mass-produced metal types. The difference was profound. Around 1600 European printing presses could output 1500 to 3600 pages per day. Chinese printing technique in contrast could only do about 40 pages per day.

Erik Engheim – Why Was Western Printing Superior to Asian Printing?

Engheim has some tremendous graphs to illustrate the 60-fold drop in the price of books, and the huge increase in the number of volumes held in the largest European libraries in the 200 years after Gutenberg’s press. Recommended.

See also:

Writing and Reading as Technology (1): Transforming Fire; Slow Burn
Writing and Reading as Technology (2): Half-baked Beginnings
Writing and Reading as Technology (3): Marginal Revolutions
Writing and Reading as Technology (4): Innovation at Play; or, A Loaded Pun
Writing and Reading as Technology (5): Literacy as Infrastructure for Thought
Writing and Reading as Technology (6): Stop Press. Who invented moveable type?
Writing and Reading as Technology (7): History’s First Mass Literacy Campaign?
Writing and Reading as Technology (8): Augmenting Reality
Writing and Reading (and visual art) as Technology (9): Virtual Realities
Writing and Reading as Technology (10): Elizabeth Eisenstein on the Printing Press and the End of the Information Famine
Writing and Reading as Technology (11): Writing Rules
Writing and Reading as Technology (12): Elizabeth Eisenstein on How the Printing Press Changed Books

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...