Movable Type and the Blessings of the Printed Word
by Jeff Lindsay
Have you ever wondered
what modern life would be like without the blessing of printing? More
specifically, have you imagined what modern life would be life
without the technological wonder of printing with movable type? Not
nearly so modern, nor so prosperous, comfortable, and interesting.
The ability to take the written word and share it broadly through
mass production of printed materials has changed our world, and
blessed our world, in countless ways. So many things that we take for
granted now have their roots in the invention of printing. The broad
dissemination of information of all kinds, now global and almost
instantaneous through the Internet, has its roots in basic
typesetting, first done manually with small blocks each containing a
single character, and then later done with mechanical, electrical,
and then electronic tools. Modern news, medical knowledge, recipes,
laws, patents and many other forms of intellectual property,
scientific knowledge, books, novels, movie scripts, email, text
messages, and, of course, scripture for the masses owe much to the
glorious invention of movable type. Where would we be without it?
Where would the Gospel and the Church in these latter days be without
Now here’s a
simple quiz to try on yourself (bear with me!) and your friends who
might not be as educated (you are likely to be rather educated or at
least more interesting than normal if you read the Nauvoo Times,
by the way). In light of how important the invention of movable type
and printed books has been on the economy and welfare of this planet,
can you name the inventor who developed a movable system and gave the
world the first mass produced book made with movable type?
This is an important
question, so take you time. To help, here are a couple of hints.
name of this inventor has at least one “g” in it. In
fact, his last name ends with the letter “g”.
more? Here’s another hint: This inventor was driven by an
altruistic desire to save millions with the power of a special book.
more hint: the name of this special book has two syllables (apart
from any articles like “the”).
ready? Write down your answer. Pencils down—stop. I hope you
did well. You can grade yourself. But do let me know how you did.
well educated adults, of course, know about Gutenberg
and the Bible.
Gutenberg’s accomplishment in creating the printed Bible was
enormous, one we can all be grateful for. That breakthrough came in
1455, just 142 years after the world’s first mass produced book
was printed in movable type in, um, China. Yes, China, the often
overlooked source of many of the world’s great inventions (not
just paper and printing, either!) in the past, and a nation that is
striving to return to its historical leadership role in inventing and
innovation (that’s another story that I’m always happy to
let’s get back to the quiz. Can you name the Chinese inventor
of the world’s first mass produced book printed with movable
type? You now know it was in 1313. But perhaps another clue will
help. OK, here’s one: This mass produced, substantial book,
often overlooked by the West, may actually have helped trigger the
Italian Renaissance. This is a controversial and perhaps long-shot
theory put forth by author Gavin Menzies in his book 1434,
where he proposes that a Chinese fleet arriving in Venice in 1434
brought hundreds of copies of a particular Chinese book filled with
drawings and descriptions of inventions suspiciously like some of
DaVinci’s. Others have argued that the book may have reached
and influenced Europe via Arab traders over land, and others aren’t
so sure the book really played a role. I’m not so sure, but
Gavin Menzies is convinced it did. That’s your clue. Now can
you name the inventor?
you’re like a minute fraction of the educated people I’ve
talked to, you gave what I think is the correct answer: Wang Zhen (王祯
simplified Chinese, where Wang is the last name, ending in “g”
of course), author and printer of the Nong
Shu, the two-syllable
title that means “the book of farming.” This special book
was intended to save millions,
not from spiritual death, but from physical death. During a dark time
in China’s history, Wang Zhen feared that the many inventions
in agriculture and related arts in China might be lost and that
famine would prevail unless he could preserve and distribute the best
knowledge available. So his book painstakingly records the
technologies of China, including many fascinating drawings of water
wheels, pumps, and even a blast furnace (long before it was
“invented” in Europe). To achieve his ambitious aims, an
effective printing method would be needed to print not just a few
copies but thousands of copies of his extensive manual so it could be
shared with magistrates and leaders all over China, who could then
instruct the farmers. You can read more about this story at Wikipedia
in the article “Wang Zhen (official)”.
Zhen explored several approaches but settled on wooden block movable
type. One advantage of wooden blocks is that the many unique,
low-frequency Chinese characters that would be needed could be
quickly hand-carved, in addition to having many hundreds of
high-frequency characters prepared in advance. His work with wooden
movable type was primarily conducted in the years 1297 or 1298. His
major inventions along the way included the use of mechanical devices
to sort and organize trays of wooden block characters to improve the
speed and efficiency of typesetting. This included a complex system
with revolving tables that allowed the typesetter to quickly find
specific characters. Though not truly the inventor of movable type
per se, he did create the innovation of the first
mass-produced book, enabled by his technical inventions and driven by
his passion to save millions.
book he would bring to life, the Nong Shu, is an illustrated
agricultural manual showing a stunning assortment of devices,
machines, and techniques in over 800 pages and with over 100,000
words (characters). It describes many aspects of daily life and
agriculture, including many devices and systems such as movable type
itself, water wheels, water-powered bellows, metal working and the
blast furnace, gears and pulleys, etc. As an illustration of the
detailed technical content, here is a passage from his 1313
masterpiece (from the Wikipedia article):
to modern study, leather bag bellows were used in olden times, but
now they always use wooden fan (bellows). The design is as follows. A
place beside a rushing torrent is selected, and a vertical shaft is
set up in a framework with two horizontal wheels so that the lower
one is rotated by the force of the water. The upper one is connected
by a driving-belt to a (smaller) wheel in front of it, which bears an
eccentric lug (lit. oscillating rod). Then all as one, following the
turning (of the driving wheel), the connecting-rod attached to the
eccentric lug pushes and pulls the rocking roller, the levers to left
and right of which assure the transmission of the motion to the
piston-rod. Thus this is pushed back and forth, operating the furnace
bellows far more quickly than would be possible with man-power.
with most great inventions, Wang Zhen’s work drew upon
learnings of earlier innovators. According to the great Chinese
scientist and scholar Shen Kuo of the 11th
century (Song Dynasty), the invention of movable type itself is
attributed to Bi Sheng (990-1051) who developed ceramic movable type.
Others would seek to improve the difficult, laborious ceramic
approach using cast metal type. Tin was first used, but, as Wang Zhen
experienced, tin was not adequately compatible with the range of inks
available in that day and gave inferior quality. Later Hua Sui (华燧)
(1439-1513 AD), a Chinese scholar and printer of Wuxi, Jiangsu
province during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), would develop cast
bronze movable type that could be successfully used in printing, and
would produce many books and further strengthen the printing
industry. He belonged to the wealthy Hua family that was renowned
throughout the region. Hua Sui is best known for creating China's
first metal movable type printing in 1490 AD.
movable type underwent significant advances even before Hua Sui in
Korea. The world’s first metal movable-type system for printing
was made in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (around 1230). This led
to the printing of the Jikji in 1377—today the oldest extant
movable metal print book. Only one copy of the final volume survives,
and it is not known how many copies of the book were printed or
whether it could be called mass produced. The metal movable type
printing system developed in this era did not appear to diffuse and
affect large segments of society, but it was a notable historical
advance in printing.
inventions that led to practical printing and the world’s first
mass produced book made with movable type, Wang Zhen played an
important historical role in furthering the paper industry and,
through the medium of printing, the spread of many innovations to
millions. For his monumental but long overlooked role, he should be
included side-by-side with Gutenberg in the annals of the paper
industry. Sadly, most people haven’t even heard of him. Not
even in China! I’d like to change that.
time you pick up a Bible or the Book of Mormon, even in electronic
form, think back beyond Gutenberg into a troubled China of 1313, and
remember the breakthrough and blessing we received when a man seeking
to help others learned how to share the printed word with thousands
and even millions. Thank, you Wang Zhen and all others who have
advanced the arts of printing and the preservation and dissemination
of knowledge, especially the knowledge of the things of God--but may
we also be grateful for novels, cookbooks, patents, blogs, and every
other valuable or wholesome thing with ties to movable type.
Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his
LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on
the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton,
Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra.
He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.
He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent
Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.
Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering
Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US
patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications.
Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.