So: How did we really figure out how to print words
on paper? The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The oldest known piece of
paper was made in Shangsi Province in China around
49 BC. That's about the same time sheepskin was
replacing papyrus in the Roman world. So what is
You make paper by spreading out a slurry of organic
fibers and draining off the water. Paper is a kind
of felt made of overlapping fibers. At first the
Chinese made paper from hemp. They used it for
wrapping and decoration -- not for writing. They'd
already been wrapping themselves in felt clothing.
In AD 105, one Ts'ai Lun used paper to replace
bamboo blocks as a writing surface. He made it from
fibers of bark, bamboo, and hemp. By AD 500, the
Chinese had experimented with rattan and mulberry
and had finally settled on bamboo paper.
And they not only wrote on their paper. They
printed on it as well. Of course printing is, in
the broadest sense, older than coal. Stamps,
brands, royal seals -- even imprints of fossils on
limestone -- are, after all, forms of block
At first, the Chinese carved images into a stone or
wood block. Then they laid paper on it and ran ink
over the paper. It was a lot like our present-day
By the 8th century, the Chinese had gone to
conventional block printing, and they were using it
on a grand scale. They printed whole scrolls.
Before AD 1000, Chinese Buddhists printed their
complete books of doctrine. That took 130,000
blocks of wood and 12 years to finish.
Then, in AD 1045, a printer named Pi-Sheng did
almost what Gutenberg would do 400 years later. He
made separate characters of clay. He embedded the
characters, face up, in a shallow tray lined with
warm wax. He laid a board across them and pressed
it down 'til all the characters were at exactly the
same level. When the wax cooled he used his letter
tray to print whole pages.
The hardest part of Pi-Sheng's process was the huge
number of characters his typesetters had to pick up
and set. The Chinese had no simple 26-letter
Still, his printing went into use. It was in use
when Europeans learned about Chinese paper-making
and began making their own fine paper from rag
fibers just before 1200. It was in use while Europe
took up block printing in the 13th century.
Finally, in the mid-1400s, Gutenberg recreated
movable type. When he did, he used durable metal
letters that fit together with a jeweler's
precision. Printing was now an art with the
capacity to bring learning to the masses, not just
to a royal court. At the same time, this was a
400-year-old technology -- poised at long last to
turn the world upon its ear.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Williams, T.I., The History of
Invention. New York: Facts on File
Publications, 1987, Chapter Ten, Paper and Printing.
(I am grateful to Jeffrey Scoggins at Detering Book
Gallery for bringing this fine source to my
Temple, R., The Genius of China. New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, pp. 110-119.
Carter, T.F., and Goodrich, L.C., The
Invention of Printing in China, and its Spread
Westward. New York: The Ronald Press
Company, 1955. (In Chapter 24, the authors attempt
to trace a solid link between Chinese printing with
movable type and Gutenberg's invention. They come
up with no more than speculation.)
Tsien, T-h, Written on Bamboo and
Silk. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Papermaking: Art and Craft, "An
account derived from the exhibition presented in
the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and
opened on April 21, 1968." (No author or curator
Schlosser, L.B., A History of Paper. PAPER --
Art & Technology (Paulette Long, ed.).
San Francisco: World Print Council, 1979, pp. 2-19.
For more on papermaking, see Episode 1227.
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 216, 628,
753, 756, and 992.
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
The process of making paper by hand. The worker in
the background is picking up the plant-fiber slurry
on a flat screen to form sheets of paper. The
worker in the foreground is laying the sheets out
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
A typical paper-making screen viewed from
The metal design in the screen is there to form
the maker's watermark in the paper
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