Why Was Western Printing Superior to Asian Printing?
Movable type was not invented by Gutenberg but in China and later advanced in Korea, so why didn’t Asia have a printing revolution?
We like to think of Johannes Gutenberg as inventor of the printing press and movable type in 1450. Yet, the first movable type got invented in China around 1040 by Bi Sheng. The types were made from porcelain material. Later wooden movable types were developed by Wang Zhen around 1297. Koreans evolved the movable type technology further. In 1234 the first books known to have been printed using metallic types was published in Korea. It happened during the Goryeo Dynasty.
So, why are we giving Gutenberg all the credit for inventing printing? Because Gutenberg served the same role for printing as James Watt did for the steam engine. Neither of the men were the original inventors of the concept, but they made improvements so radical that they made the technology transformational.
Gutenberg made a mechanical machine, a printing press, which allowed printers to greatly speed up the printing process. Asian printing in contrast involved rubbing paper into types covered in ink. It was not done using a machine, and it was not done using mass-produced metal types. The difference was profound. Around 1600 European printing presses could output 1500 to 3600 pages per day. Chinese printing technique in contrast could only do about 40 pages per day.
The printing press led to a sharp drop in book prices. From the invention of the printing press to 1500, books got about 60 times cheaper. By 1600 books had gotten 300 to a 1000 times cheaper. This price reduction made it possible to spread scientific knowledge cheaply all over Europe. With the lower price came a sharp increase in demand for scientific and academic study.
The printing press also allowed Europeans to catchup with China in literacy. Why…