New Worlds: The Printing Press

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

It’s no exaggeration to say that the printing press is a revolutionary form of technology. There are many other bottlenecks that can also limit the availability of written texts in a society, but the labor involved in copying manuscripts by hand is enormous. When that was the only way to reproduce material, the amount of material available was always going to be small. But put it into a machine, and suddenly you’ve opened up whole new realms of literature and literacy.

At this point most of you probably expect me to bring up Johannes Gutenberg, but in fact, printing presses are older than that, and didn’t start with him.

In fact, the earliest printing technology wasn’t for written text at all. There are silk fragments from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China that have flowers printed on them using a woodcut illustration. Woodblock printing, aka xylography, can be used for printing words as well, but it has a number of downsides: it’s hard to create very precise images, and the block degrades over time from use, the wood softening and wearing down. Plus it’s all well and good to carve a page of text into wood . . . but when it comes time to print page two, you have to start all over again. And while there are ways to edit if you make a mistake, on the whole, it’s pretty inflexible.

So when we talk about the “printing press” in this context, what we usually mean is movable type: a system that lets you slot existing characters into a frame, use them to print, and then remove them to be used again in different configurations.

The earliest evidence for movable type is again from China, and it dates back to centuries before Gutenberg. (A fact the fantasy novelist Jim Hines made use of in his Libriomancer series.) Bi Sheng invented movable type in the middle of the eleventh century CE, using ceramic forms for the characters. He also experimented with wooden movable type, but found it less effective; Wang Zhen developed a better version in the late thirteenth century.

But as in Europe, the real money-maker was in metallic movable type. Kind of literally: apparently some of the earliest metal-printed material in China is paper money. This got started in the twelfth century, so not long after Bi Sheng (and before Wang Zhen’s renewed experiments with wood). In Europe that idea hit in the fifteenth century, with Gutenberg adapting the “punches” then used to stamp coins and similar items, and the rest is history — a history much more abundantly documented than before.

Movable type isn’t the whole story, of course. You need quite a few ancillary ideas and technologies to go with that, like good production of paper (so you have something to print on), inks suitable to being painted onto the type (so you have something to print with), and a device that will press your frame of type onto the paper evenly. And you need bookbinding, which from Gutenberg’s day to some books still produced today involves stitching pages together in yet another labor-intensive process.

None of which is meant to downplay the importance of the movable type concept on its own. Especially for an alphabetic writing system, where the number of letterforms needed is quite small, the advantages it offers are enormous — and the consequences are even bigger.

Consider something like the Protestant Reformation. Back in those days, part of the authority of the Catholic Church rested on the fact that Bibles were rare and written in Latin, which only a small segment of the populace was educated enough to read. But printing technology made it possible to disseminate the Bible much more widely — which then paved the way for an explosion of vernacular translations that made the sacred text directly available to a much broader population, which in turn drove a lot of the theological furor of that period.

Or consider one of the earliest forms of mass media, the broadside. These provided a way to disseminate not just entertainment but news — and in fact the two often went hand-in-hand, with ballads being used to inform people about recent events. From broadsides you go to newspapers; the Venetian government produced a prototype of these in the mid-sixteenth century, but the idea really took off starting in the early seventeenth century.

Being able to print something like a newspaper is utterly transformative to culture and daily life. People become more well-informed about major events, no longer relying solely on word of mouth that might mutate with each telling. Cities extend their influence into rural areas, spreading everything from official decrees to fashion trends to scurrilous gossip. Certain forms of the language become standardized and official, exerting pressure against regional dialects.

And literacy grows by leaps and bounds. There’s more motivation to learn, and more texts to learn from. Loaning someone a book, while still a risky proposition, stops being the kind of thing for which one might demand collateral in return. You get circulating libraries, reading groups, books on topics that would never have been considered worth the effort and expense in the old days. The odds of losing a book entirely — not a single physical volume, but the text itself — drop sharply, because there are more extant copies of any given title, and the odds that one or more survive are much better. (It can still happen, of course. But not to nearly the same degree as before.)

When the topic of technology in fantasy comes up, I usually see people framing it in terms of firearms: does your fictional society have gunpowder or not? It’s a valid question; the Four Great Inventions of Chinese history are the compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. But note that when you take papermaking and printing together, half that list is heavily focused on textual matters. Even when I see guns in a secondary-world fantasy, I rarely see printing presses, or their knock-on effects. Give me more newspapers and magazines, broadsides and vernacular translations of special texts. The world needs more stories about the power of the printed word.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Printing Press — 23 Comments

  1. Gutenberg didn’t invent presses (for printing or, in their agricultural uses, for squeezing fruits and vegetables to extract oil or juice). He didn’t invent movable type. But in addition to coming up with a workable way to create and set movable type, he did come up with an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony which was liquid enough when heated to distribute fully into the punches, and strong enough when cool to withstand repeated pressure from the press. He also came up with an oil-based ink which allowed for printing on both sides (water based ink had a tendency to soak through both sides of the paper, rendering a double-sided sheet illegible), and a process that included dampening the paper, which allowed the ink to penetrate just a little, so it didn’t take forever to dry.

    Apparently, within 50 years of Gutenberg’s creation of his press (and the proliferation of the technology around Europe, chiefly in centers of learning) the price of a book had dropped 80%, from astronomically expensive to merely unaffordable by most.

    • Yeah, that’s what I mean about the ancillary technologies — our tidy narratives of invention often forget that there’s more than one thing you need to make the idea go, like the alloy and the ink and so forth. Definitely not trying to denigrate his achievement! Just that I remember being taught about him as if poof, out of nowhere he had an idea nobody anywhere had ever thought of before . . . which isn’t actually true.

      • Absolutely. And if Gutenberg hadn’t figured out this stuff, someone else would have–there were others doing the same sort of work at the same time. Like the Great Man theory of history, the Great Invention theory needs to be picked at to make any narrative sense at all.

          • Ada Palmer has a really interesting take on this, based on running what amounts to a live-action roleplaying simulation of a certain historical papal election. She’s run it many times now, and her take is that while some aspects of the outcome seems to be inevitable — the pope will always be selected from a certain group of candidates; there will always be a war as a result — others are subject to change, like which of those candidates gets elected, who’s involved on which side of the war, how bad the war is, etc. So there is a degree to which, yes, there’s a Tide of History . . . but the actions of individuals can sometimes have a significant effect on how exactly that tide rolls in.

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  3. Ever since I took a course on the history of books/reading, I’ve wanted to see more books with printing/papermaking technology in them, particularly early-stage (eg non-movable type) printing tech. Some highlights of what I remember from the course:

    Having a printing press makes censorship a question of who is allowed to operate a press and how — hence the whole question of freedom of the press. But in a society that uses block printing for literature, censorship becomes more control of the physical printing blocks themselves. (This is based on vague memories, I don’t have a good reference for this.)

    Printing is really useful for bureaucracy — you’ve mentioned money, but also standardized forms. The earliest known European document printed with movable type is an indulgence, that is, a form letter saying “thank you for your donation to the church, the burden of your sins has been reduced accordingly.”

    • Good points about both bureaucracy and censorship! Man . . . I already wrote the post for next week, but now I’m tempted to save it for later use and write one on censorship instead. Hmmmmm. <ponders>

        • I second that. After all, the question of “What gets censored?” begs the question of “Who gets to decide?”, which leads to all sorts of…fun.

  4. Book-binding is a technology that has its interesting sides. For instance, the codex was introduced about the same time as Christianity, and the Christians loved it. As in, there are archaeological digs that found libraries were more than 90 percent of the pagan works were scrolls, and more than 90% of the Christian, codices.

    • I would imagine it was, in part, because it was one more way to differentiate themselves from their Jewish forebears (particularly after 70 AD)

  5. Just remember that the predecessors of “modern” copyright in Europe were all censorship systems. Indeed, the English “Star Chamber” spent more than 70% of its time (and an even higher proportion of its ire) on religious texts that had not been authorized by the powers-that-be. It doesn’t take much to transfer the activities of the Company of Stationers into a deep, dark conspiracy… primarily because for most of the period from the first Licensing Act until the final failure of renewal in 1695, it WAS. (It just didn’t have dark Satanic rituals — those were reserved for the alchemists. On the other hand, there was at least one practicing alchemist in the Company of Stationers in the 1580s…)

      • John Dee. He wasn’t just practicing.

        All seriousness aside, the connection between “alchemy” and “printing press” also extends to Gutenberg in a sideways fashion: All metallurgists of the time also did alchemy, and antimony was isolated from ores in the northern Alps in (if I’m recalling the date correctly) 1429 or so, by… an alchemist attempting to create philosophical lead. And then smelted in large enough quantities for others to experiment with.* Gutenberg and his near neighbors ran out the entire commercial supply in 1458(? I think, the sources I learned this from are all Over There), resulting in problems for the next two years.

        The side bit of interest here is that neither Korea nor China, at that time, had much in the way of accessible ores with enough antimony to work with. By itself, that explains why they persisted with ceramics and woodblocks as long as they did: Iron was too hard (and too difficult to case accurately), lead and copper were too soft, and bronze/brass were too expensive for “trade” use, in Asia before the Gobi Desert was opened up for mineral exploitation a few hundred years later.**

        * Which is hard when you don’t have even the faintest predecessor of an atomic theory, and you’re doing all of your redox purifications without any clue about quantification.

        ** If you’re in a darker mood about this sort of thing, inquire into wolframite, incandescent light bulbs, and the seriously considered strategic danger in the 1970s of 85% of the world’s commercial-quantity-and-grade tungsten coming from the People’s Republic of China, on the one hand… and the Republic of South Africa on the other. (It’s one of the reasons that the A-10’s 30mm tank-buster round was built around a depleted-uranium core and not a tungsten core.) And if you think that cell phone in your pocket has no relationship to “conflict minerals,” think again…

        • Oh, fascinating! I didn’t know that about antimony. That technology can be driven by access to key materials or lack thereof, yes — I seem to recall that potassium for glassmaking in medieval Europe was a Big Problem, and they had to process it out of urine because potassium imports from the Near East dropped off with the advent of conflicts with the Islamic world, though that’s a fuzzy memory from a class I took in 1998, so take it with a grain of salt. And copper, which we think of as being utterly ordinary, is pretty key these days — supply is having a hard time keeping up with demand. But I didn’t know the specific detail that antimony was harder to come by in East Asia, with concomitant effects on the development of movable type there.

  6. Could it be that a reason that the printing presses didn’t catch on sooner, either in Europe or Asia, is that both already had a broad group of people whose *job* was to copy books? Perhaps to get presses to do books sooner, we need to remove or at least reduce the copiers first?

    IE, Rome, Byzantium, and Alexandria/Cairo had oodles of monks; perhaps find or create a rival religious center which doesn’t have a monastic tradition…for some reason, I want to say either the Vandals or the Huns – Ireland and Britain by that time were in the Romano-Byzantine camp faithwise…which does leave Scotland open as a possible option, I believe.

    • I dunno — there have been many examples in history of new technologies that rendered somebody’s job obsolete, and still got adopted very rapidly anyway, because the benefits were too clear to ignore. And I’m not aware of any coordinated efforts on the part of the Church to prevent somebody from inventing moveable type. Once it got invented, it caught on pretty damn fast, so that suggests the bottleneck was more technological than social.

      • Apologies – I didn’t mean to suggest or imply or (?impugne?) that the Church had tried to keep us from making movable type…only that with a veritable army of copyists, there was less motivation to try putting the pieces together sooner.
        (“hey, I’ve got all this spare wood, some carving tools, and an olive press…”) 🙂

        • I would imagine that woodblock-carving would have been just as, if not more, labour intensive than hand-copying, which is perhaps why that technique never caught on for print (carving illustration blocks might have been more a labour of love, and certainly less tedious).

          I’m thinking that there might have been a fair number of hand-cramped scribes who would have been more than happy to give over their jobs to a machine. A glance at some of those early hand-copied manuscripts shows that not all scribes were imminently gifted or particularly careful with their handiwork. I’m sure a lot of them hated the work but did it—however poorly—out of necessity.

            • Imminently, immanently, eminently . . . English likes to make things difficult. 🙂

              I don’t actually know what the ratio of work hours to texts produced is for woodblocks vs. hand-copying. Definitely the carving took a lot of time, but you could also get multiple uses out of the block before it degraded too much for legibility.