You likely learned in school that Johannes Gutenberg was responsible for inventing the printing press leading to a revolutionary spread of information across Europe. Religion fractured, governments were overthrown, and the arts flourished. While Gutenberg was responsible for developing the movable type printing press in Europe, printing had been happening across Asia and Africa for centuries! 

China’s Ming Dynasty  saw the first movable type printing press that the world had ever seen. By 1161, the Song Dynasty was using the process to print paper money, and the movable type printing press had been developed and used in Korea by the 1200s. Movable type printing continued well into the 1900s and was often combined with wood block printing.

But even before movable type, people had been printing on paper, tablets, and textiles since ancient times. Carved woodblocks were used across East and South Asia. You can try your own hand at printing with Uruk Unboxed where you can make cuneiform cookies or with a carved wood block in Mauryans Unboxed.

Jikji or “Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters”, published in 1377, Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty. It is the earliest known book printed with movable metal type.

There were areas of the world that initially rejected printing; the Islamic Empire, which was a center for learning and scientific study, held handwritten script in high regard and preferred it to mechanical printing methods. Calligraphy is still an important art form in Arabic cultures.

As learners of history, we are so grateful to all of the printed material that survives from across the world! Consider: 

  • How do you print words and pictures now? 
  • What tools have you used to share a story or art that you’ve created? 
  • In our digital age, how necessary is it to print anything at all? 
  • For historians and archaeologists of the future, how will they know about our daily lives when so much of those lives is lived online without a paper footprint?

Rebecca is a writer and editor based in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for history education and holds an MA in History of Decorative Arts. Rebecca believes that hands-on history and interacting with objects helps learning come alive for children and adults.

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