The evolution of print relies on prudent integration of emerging technologies; it does today as it did in its infancy eighteen hundred years ago. Two technologies paved the path for print to evolve into the industry we enjoy today; they are the invention of movable type and the production of economical, stable substrates to print on.
Movable type, first used in China in the Song Dynasty (11th Century), was not popularized until the 13th century when Bi Sheng began to create type figures by casting porcelain using clay-mold masters. This produced a more durable product but still, not as cost effective as wood carved type. The thousands of characters used in the Chinese alphabet made it difficult to organize and manage pre-cast molds in any quantity, so movable type was not and effective or productive way to create pages.
By the 12th century copper was being used to manufacture some type characters, this led to the first printing of money, the movable type characters being used to print denominations. Bronze type castings were invented in Korea during the 13th century, the Jikji, a Buddhist teaching, is the first known publication to use movable type of this era.
As was common in these early years, technologies moved eastward with the trade routes and it is east to Persia we go for the next and final ingredient in the birth of print as an industry we recognize today.
The production of paper was a ‘by hand’ process that produced individual sheets of paper. The first papers were made during the Eastern Han period (25-220 A.D.) in China but it wasn’t until the 8th century that paper began to replace parchment for writing purposes. It is believed that due to the rarity of parchment in the Islamic territories that they began to manufacture paper for the purpose of correspondence and record keeping. Thus, the paper mill owes its development to the Middle East. This technology continued to migrate eastward; paper mills were established in Europe by the 11th century and were a growing enterprise by the 14th century. These mills were not the automated factories we know today, papermaking was still a manual process. Mills of this time were essentially large workshops.
Now the scene is set, the primary elements for economical print reproduction, reusable prepress in moveable type and availability of materials to print, are in place. Next we discover how a German jeweller from Mainz integrated these technologies, changing the world forever.
Image Source: Willi Heidelbach, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons