Who Invented the Printing Press?

The Inventor of the Printing Press - Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg is generally credited with inventing the printing press in 1439. More specifically, he is often credited with inventing a press that has movable type.  

But both of those statements are unfortunately wrong. 

If you want to know who actually invented the printing press, you have to read further. 

Who really invented the printing press?

If you want a correct answer, it was actually the Chinese who invented the printing press many years earlier.

Here's the deal.

Gutenberg simply re-engineered the printing press to make mass printing possible.  It was actually in existence long before he was around. 

Here is when the printing press was first invented.

593 AD  - The First Printing Press... In China?

That's right.  The first ever historical record of a printing press is given to us by the Chinese. It was commissioned by Emperor Wen-ti in 593 AD who ordered the printing of Buddhist scriptures.  

Some of these printing presses have survived until today! They printed newspapers.  Here is a picture of it.

Wooden blocks from the first invented printing press.
The first printing press invented. 
Wooden blocks for printing newspapers.

The piece above consisted of a solid piece of wood with Chinese characters carved in relief.  No doubt these printers spent many days making these blocks.  

We even have a printed sample from such a printing press dating to 868 called the Diamond Sutra.

The first printed book.
The first printing press invented printed this book.

It is a complete book containing sacred writings relating the Buddhism and is located in the British Museum.

But there was another significant improvement:

1041 AD The invention of the printing press with movable type.

Ok. So does Johannes Gutenberg even get credit for inventing a printing press with movable type?

The answer is surprisingly no.  Once again, the Chinese were already pioneering this technology a few hundred years earlier than him. It was probably one of the greatest steps forward in the invention of modern printing in the span of about 500 years.

Credited with inventing movable type is Bi Sheng around 1041 AD.  His movable type was made from fired clay.  In this respect, his invention of movable type preceded Gutenberg by almost 400 years!

Movable type printing press was invented around 1041.

So does Johannes Gutenberg get credit for anything?

1439 AD - Gutenberg "invents" the printing press.

It is no doubt true that the Chinese had little to no influence on Gutenberg's invention.  They lived worlds apart.

So what does Johannes Gutenberg get credit for?

Here's the point:

A real, high volume, production printing press required materials beyond what had already been invented by the Chinese to mass produce books.  Wooden blocks wore out quickly.  High volume was still not possible.

Being a goldsmith, Gutenburg already had the know how to produce movable type that was more durable.  Type that was produced from a metal alloy was far more durable and could make a printing press that was more suitable for mass production. At this point, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press that was ready for mass production.

Metal movable type for printing press.
The invention of a metal based movable type made mass printing possible.

So what is the answer? 

Who really invented the printing press?

There are really three credits to be handed out.

  1. Emperor Wen-ti in 593 AD who built it to print newspapers.
  2. Bi Sheng around 1041 AD who invented movable type.
  3. Johannes Gutenberg who made crafted movable type into more durable metals to facilitate mass production.