I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Refined Reader (27) Movable Type and the Printing Press

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

Movable type is similar to woodblock printing which was the subject of last week's Refined Reader.  In this case, instead of using wood for each character block, metal is used, which is more durable and created better looking letters on the page.  Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng in China, around 1040 A.D.  However, movable type was not as practical in China because there are thousands of letters in their alphabet.  In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg, of Germany, further developed the idea of movable type when he invented his printing press.  Movable type was not widely used in Europe at the time, despite having been invented in China centuries before, but Gutenberg changed that by creating a method that was easier and more efficient in manipulating the movable type pieces.

Some of the innovations Gutenberg came up with included a specific metal alloy for the letter pieces which made ink transfer better, a hand mould which held the letters, a mould that could create the letter pieces more easily, and an oil-based ink which was more durable than previously used water-based inks.

Gutenberg's printing press revolutionized European history and is thought to be one of the main factors in the beginning of the Renaissance.  Mass production of books made the spread of books, information and new ideas much easier in Europe and it also led to the invention of the newspaper.  Because of the printing press, printing output in 1600 could be around 3,600 paper impressions a day, while in Asia with printed paper done manually, the output was at most 40 pages a day.  This also meant that with large copies of one book available, certain books could become true bestsellers.

But there were other changes to reading habits - over a long period of time reading moved from predominantly oral to silent, authorship became important and profitable, and it helped to standardize spelling and syntax.  It also led to the need for copyright laws and of course a rise in the literacy rate.  It's truly wonderful to think how such a simple invention - the main idea of which was just a better way to press the shapes of different letters to paper - could so change the course of history for the better.  And even though I learned about the printing press in school, I didn't realize how much it has impacted the way we read and our relationship with books!

Next week: Etching

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