In thinking about the history of printing, it might be fun to take a look at the history of the machine that puts it all together: the printing press. We’ll adopt a pretty liberal definition of “printing press” here; for purposes of this blog, any device that copies patterns of ink in an easily reproducible fashion counts. With that in mind, we’ll start in ancient China, where the first ever “prints” were made sometime before 220 CE. These prints were made by woodblock on which patterns (the first prints were floral) were engraved, then dipped or rolled in ink, then applied to any of various materials by pressure. The first prints were made on clothing not paper, and indeed, the earliest printed book discovered thus far came about 600 years after the first prints on textiles. That book was the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text translated into Chinese and printed under the Tang Dynasty (the earliest copy dates to 868 CE). In some sense, the spread of Buddhism from India throughout East Asia may have prompted woodblock printing: this development made it necessary to keep religious texts consistent through time and place.
This technology gradually spread westward to Europe, where block printing was common on cloth by 1300 and paper by 1400. At the same time, China was beginning to develop the next great advance in printing: movable type. Usually, we think of movable type as stemming from Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400’s, but in fact, the Chinese inventor Bi Sheng invented a moveable type system much earlier, around 1040. However, this system never became terribly popular, mostly because the Chinese character system is too large for a moveable type set to be practical. However, when adapted to the Roman alphabet, this system worked extraordinarily well. This development gave rise to the now-famous Gutenberg printing press and Gutenberg Bible, which truly can be called the forerunner to the modern printed document.
Much has changed in printing from Gutenberg to the present day, but that is another story…. Needless to say, we use only modern technology at ZoePrint.com. You won’t find any woodblock printing presses at our facility! Nonetheless, the printing press is what transformed communication and made inexpensive printing a reality.