Neo Gutenberg - Chapter Three

Jayraj Salgaokar is the publisher and founder of Kalnirnay, India's largest selling multilingual publication. He has been a Marathi author since he started writing in 1976. He completed his post graduation in Economics from the University of Bombay in 1978. As an eclectic thinker, his interest in writing ranges from biographies, culture, economics, politics, socialand contemporary trends. In his book Neo Gutenberg, he pays tribute to the history of print through a contemporary lens.

23 Oct 2013 | By Jayraj Salgaokar

3 - Paper and Printing
3.1 Invention of Paper
For centuries written communication has formed the centre of civilization. Most of our important records are still on paper. Although writing has been around since a long time, paper is a relatively recent invention. Clay tablets and palm leaves acted as predecessors to paper. Prior to the invention of paper, writing down your thoughts was not always easy or practical.

Over the years, people kept trying to discover better surfaces to record thoughts and events. Wood, stone, ceramic, cloth, bark, metal, silk, leather and tree leaves – all of these acted as writing surfaces at one point or another but none came close to the convenience paper offered. The word paper is derived from the word papyrus, which was a plant found in Egypt.

A thick paper-like substance called papyrus was produced from this plant and was intermittently used in Europe; but it was found unsuitable to the area’s moist climatic conditions. China saw the invention of the ideal version of paper during the 2nd century BC. Ts’ai Lun is credited as the pioneer of the papermaking process. Paper is believed to be one of Chinese society’s four greatest inventions; the other three being the compass, gunpowder and printing.
The story behind the invention and composition of paper is equally fascinating. Ts’ai Lun took the inner barks of a mulberry tree and bamboo fiber, mixed them with water, and pounded them with a wooden tool. He poured this mixture on a flat piece of coarsely woven cloth and let the water drain through, leaving only the fiber on the cloth. Once dry, Ts’ai Lun discovered that a high quality writing surface had been created which was lightweight and relatively easy to make. (01)

The invention of paper provided a great boost to the Chinese economy. It enhanced administration by simplifying the task of running the empire. It also replaced silk which had previously been popular as a writing surface in the country. This allowed the Chinese to export silk in larger quantities and gain greater economic benefits owing to the enormous global popularity of the material. This knowledge of papermaking was used in China long before word passed along to Korea, Samarkand and Baghdad through the Middle East. Knowledge of the papermaking process reached Europe only by the 12th century, centuries after it had been invented. However, once medieval Europe was privy to the skill, paper was used in hitherto unknown ways which eventually led to a swift spread of knowledge and consequently the Renaissance. (01, 02)

In A History of Mechanical Inventions Abbot Payson Usher explains the importance of the invention:
“The history of paper in some ways is a separate subject, but it must be evident that the generalization of printing could not have proceeded significantly with any other basic medium. Parchment is difficult to handle, costly, and narrowly limited

(Ts’ai Lun is credited as the pioneer of the papermaking process)
in supply. Books would have remained an article of luxury if parchment had been the only available medium of issue. Papyrus is hard, brittle and unsuitable for printing. The introduction of linen-paper making into Europe from China was thus an important preliminary condition.” (03)
3.2 Wooden Printing Press
Printing is generally accepted as one of the most defining inventions responsible for the advancement of civilization. The Tang (618-906) dynasty is largely credited for inventing printing between the 4th and 7th century AD. (01, 02) What began as blocks cut from wood used to print textiles came to be used to reproduce short Buddhist religious texts which were then carried around as charms by believers. Later long scrolls and books were produced, first by woodblock printing and then, beginning in the 11th century, by using movable type.

During the Song (960-1279) dynasty, inexpensive printed books became widely available in China. (02) An Imperial decree of 593 first mentions printing where Sui Emperor Wen-ti ordered the printing of Buddhist images and scriptures. The printing process involved text first being written on a piece of thin paper, then being glued face down onto a wooden plate. The characters were carved out to make a woodblock printing plate, which was used to print the text. Woodblock printing required a new block to be carved for every page in a book, but when the stamps were complete, an expert could print a thousand or more sheets a day.

Printed books first appeared in great quan tities in Shu (in the modern Szechuan province) during the 9th century; these books could be purchased from private dealers. Soon the printing technique spread to other provinces, and by the end of the 9th century it was commonplace all over China. The printed books included Confucian classics, Buddhist scriptures, dictionaries and mathematical tomes. The printing technique advanced speedily. By 1000 AD, books with pages similar to the modern style had replaced scrolls of a bygone era in China. (02, 03)
However, woodblock printing had its own limitations. The system didn’t provide precision and entire pages had to be printed at once; subsequently if there was a mistake, the whole process had to be repeated. Even a minor crack in the printing case led to its devaluation and a new one had to be made. Block printing was expensive, time intensive and restrictive; each carved block could only be used for a specific page of a particular book. Hence, during the 11th century, an alchemist named Pi Sheng invented movable type out of clay which was the size of a coin. Once hardened by fire this porcelain type became more durable. However, they still broke easily. This was remedied a couple of centuries down the line when wood began to be used in place of clay.

The Chinese were extremely meticulous about their inventions and took great pride in it. Legend has it that in 1313, a magistrate named Wang Chen asked a craftsman to carve more than 60,000 characters on movable wooden blocks so that a treatise on the history of technology could be published. By the 13th century, paper money and playing cards printed by the Chinese woodblock method reached the West. (02) A few Silk Route merchant travellers brought the printing knowledge to Europe, which later inspired Johannes Gutenberg to develop printing in the West. (03)
Movable Clay Type
This system of typography was invented during the Song dynasty in China. It uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation). Pi Sheng (990–1051) guided the creation of the world’s first known movable type system for printing around 1040 AD. This movable type was traditionally made of clay and was gradually replaced by wood.

Korea witnessed the development of the first metal movable-type system for printing during the Goryeo Dynasty, around 1230. In 1377, a Korean Buddhist document called Jikji was printed; today it stands as the oldest existing book printed using movable metal type. The diffusion of both movable type systems was, however, limited. They were expensive and required an enormous amount of labour; manipulating thousands of ceramic tablets or metal tablets for the thousands of characters in the extensive Asian alphabets required a lot of work.

Around 1450, German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and independently developed a movable type system in Europe, along with innovations in type by casting them on a matrix and hand mould.

The limited number of characters needed for European languages as opposed to their Asian counterparts played an important role in hastening its development. Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony - the same components still used today. When it came to alphabetic scripts, setting up a movable type page turned out to be quicker and more durable than woodblock printing. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to consistent typography and fonts.

The printing press was particularly efficient for a limited number of alphabets. The high quality that Gutenberg’s press offered coupled with the relatively low prices at which books could now be sold established the superiority of movable type in Europe and the use of printing presses spread rapidly.

In 1455, the Gutenberg Bible became the first major book that was printed using the movable type system. The printing press was one of the key factors that fostered the Renaissance; due to its effectiveness it came to be used all around the world. With the invention of hot metal typesetting in the 19th century and its successors, the movable system gradually began to decline.

(One line not metal typesetting, one line casting with not lead furness & lead spray Linotype)

(A double version of Koenig’s cylinder printing press)

The method employed by hot metal typesetting involved injecting molten type metal into a mould shaped like the characters that would be printed. Monotype and linotype were two popular systems based on hot metal typesetting. American Tolbert Lanston invented the monotype, a device that consisted of a keyboard and casting machine. The monotype allowed for maximum production of printed matter with minimum effort. The linotype machine was invented by German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler. It became the first device that could speedily set complete lines of type to be used in the printing press. The linotype machine was used by newspapers, magazines and poster printers well into the 20th century, until it was eventually replaced by offset printing and computer typesetting.