The History of Writing and Reading – Part 15: Printing and the Spread of Writing (Part 2 of 3)

[Editor’s note: This is the sixteenth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. It is also the second of a three-part discussion of the rise of printing and its effect on various civilizations. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]

Last week we discussed the earliest printing methods developed and how the process progressed over time. This week we’re going to look at more modern (relatively speaking) processes that allowed for the creation of mass book publications, which greatly affected the education and literacy of the common person.

After woodblock printing migrated from China to the rest of Central Asia, it moved northward into Europe. It started off as a method for printing on cloth, and by 1300, it was a commonplace practice, with many printed religious images becoming large and elaborate. When paper became fairly easy to obtain, somewhere around the turn of the 1400s, the medium transferred very quickly to small woodcut religious images and printed paper playing cards. These prints were mass produced starting around 1425.[1]

Around the mid-fifteenth-century, block-books (woodcut books that contained both text and images), emerged as a cheaper alternative to manuscripts and books printed with movable type. These were short and heavily illustrated due to the nature of the printing process, and they represented the bestsellers of the day repeated in many different versions: the Ars moriendi and the Biblia pauperum were the two most common works. Scholars are still uncertain whether these block-books preceded or followed the introduction of movable type; estimates of their introduction fall between 1440 and 1460.[1]

Movable type was the next big step in the development of printing. This system, created by Chinese printer Pi Sheng in 1041 CE, was more flexible and accurate than either hand copying or block printing. He used both porcelain and clay for the type; their main disadvantage was that the type broke easily. In 1298, though, Wang Zhen carved more durable pieces from wood.[2] Pi also developed a complex system of revolving tables and number-association with written Chinese characters that made typesetting and printing more efficient. However, as the Chinese language contains thousands of different characters, the main method in use remained woodblock printing (xylography), which “proved to be cheaper and more efficient for printing Chinese.”[3]

At the beginning of the 12th century, China developed a system of copper movable type printing, which was used in large-scale printing of paper money issued by the Northern Song dynasty. This spread rather quickly to Korea where, about 1230, printers began to use the more durable bronze. The earliest preserved evidence of a metal-printed book is The Jikji, published in 1377 (Jikji, “Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Son Masters,” now residing in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris). Adapted from the method of casting coins, each character was cut in beech wood, which was then pressed into soft clay to form a mold, bronze was then poured into the mold and allowed to set, and finally the type was polished.[4] The Korean form spread to Europe between the late 14th and the early 15th centuries, and it was very similar to the process Johannes Gutenberg would use for his own printing press in Germany around 1450.

Gutenberg was not the inventor of the printing press, as is often mistakenly stated. Instead, he introduced the first movable type printing system to Europeans by building on the technology created by the Koreans. His achievements were rooted in his ability to scientifically synthesize various mechanical elements and to package them into an economical, practical product. His primary innovation was the invention of the adjustable mold. This allowed the person casting metal type to adjust the width of the letter as needed, and he could print that same letter many thousands of times. It also established the principle of interchangeable parts, three centuries before it became industry’s basis for mass-produced products. In addition, Gutenberg was the first to create his metal types from an alloy of lead, tin, antimony, copper and bismuth – the same components still used today.[5]

Movable type page setting and using a printing press was faster than any woodblock method, and the letter pieces were more durable and uniform. This led to the advent of typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of Gutenberg’s first printed item, the “Gutenberg Bible,” (1455) established the superiority of movable type for use with most Western languages. The printing press rapidly spread across Europe and later the rest of the world.

Next up: Printing and the Spread of Language, Part 3



[1] Master E.S., Alan Shestack. (1967). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[2] Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. (nd). “Great Chinese Inventions.” Minnesota-China Connection. Retrieved from

[3] Beckwith, Christopher I. (2009). “Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.” Princeton University Press.

[4] Tsuen-Hsuin, Tsien; Needham, Joseph (1985). “Paper and Printing. Science and Civilisation in China. 5 part 1.” Cambridge University Press, p. 330.

[5] Haley, Allan. (nd). “Gutenberg’s Invention.” Retrieved from


To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.

To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.

To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.

To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.

To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.

To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.

To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.

To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.

To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.

To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.

To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.

To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.

To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.

To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.

To read Part 14 (Printing, Part 1), click here.



Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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