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IDX102- Guttenberg & Movable Type

Ancient Art

Around the world, images have been found carved, painted and drawn on cave walls and rocks which is believed to show the beginning of communication among humans. The earliest cave art is around 50,000 years old found in Spanish caves depicting lined structures and hand stencils. Just a few thousand years later, these designs began showing animal and human figures like those found in Indonesia.

These petroglyphs and pictograms evolved into symbols that represented an idea also known as ideograms. From here, humans created writing systems that can loosely fall into three categories known as alphabetic, logographic and syllabic, with the earliest being mainly logographic which based on these ideographic elements.


Arguably the earliest writing system, Cuneiform was a Logo-syllabic system used in the writing of several languages in the Ancient Middle East, developed primarily for the Sumerian language of Mesopotamia. It consisted of wedge-shaped designs carved into clay tablets with a wedge tipped stylus.

(The name Lugaldalu, 2500BC)

(Kish tablet, pictography on a limestone tablet, 3500BC)

(Table showing Cuneiform signs being simplified throughout the years)


Egyptian Hieroglyphs

It is believed that the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs began just after Sumerian script and was mostly likely influenced by it. It was there in Ancient Egypt around 200BC that the first full alphabet was created and later in Greece the first alphabet with letters. Only those born from certain backgrounds and educated were allowed to be trained as scribes in the Egyptian empire. With over 1,000 Distinctive characters, these hieroglyphs were used mainly in the writings of religious literature on wood and papyrus.

Egyptian hieroglyphic script is understood to be the beginning of majority of the scripts that are still used today such as Latin. The Rosetta Stone was key in the deciphering of the Egyptian scripts.

Key points in the timeline of writing:

  • During the ice-age, people in Europe mark bone, ivory and stone with patterns tracking time and the lunar calendar. 30,000BC
  • The first map found depicted on bone, found in now Ukraine. 14,000BC
  • Cuneiform was developed in Sumeria and Hieroglyphic writing by the Egyptians. 3500BC
  • Ts’ai Lun in China invents paper during the 105BC.
  • Paper is introduced into the Muslim world. 751
  • Quills are used for writing on paper. 1250

Printing and Moveable Type

The woodblock printing technique originated in China as a method for printing on textiles such as silk and then eventually paper using wood, clay, stone, jade then eventually metal. Used primarily through East Asia, Japan is also well known for the use of woodblock printing in the printing of books at Buddhist temples as well as beautiful woodblock printed art called Ukiyo-e.

Around 1000AD, Bi Sheng invented moveable type printing using characters made from porcelain and carved clay blocks. This paved the way for the creation of the print press almost 200 years later.

Printing Around The World

  • Middle East – woodblock printing was mostly used for the Qur’an, which are sacred religious text of Islam.
  • Egypt – known as Tarsh, woodblock printing was used in the creation of amulets and prayers.
  • Europe – the earliest forms of printing were used for religious imagery known as Helgen.
  • China – Tripitaka or Triple Basket, which are a collection of sacred Buddhist scriptures, took 130,000 blocks and 10 years to print.
  • Germany – Johannes Gutenberg invents the Gutenberg press, printing with mechanical movements, revolutionising the print of type.

Gutenberg Press

Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and inventor, was a political exile from Germany during the time he began to experiment with printing in 1440. Gutenberg’s design replaced wood with metal, making his own ink that would affix to this metal rather than ink used previously which was made for wood printing. He retrofitted the winepress into his design to flatten the printing paper and using brass letters, which is speculated to have been created using carved sand, each fit uniformly together to create level lines and columns. Making the lettering blocks from metal meant that they would be more durable and also more uniform which paved the way for typography.

From Gutenburgs creation came the first major book that was printed known as the Gutenburg Bible. The typeface that was used is known as Textura or Blackletter, with long vertical strokes and thick black lines based on the lettering used in many hand written religious texts during the medieval period.

The first Roman Typeface was created in the 15th century by Nicholas Jenson which was inspired by the lettering found on ancient Roman buildings. This type was more legible that Gutenberg’s Blackletter and was a huge success. Following this was italics which were created in the late 15th century to save money by fitting more letters onto a page, whereas now it can be used between regular fonts to emphasise a phrase or word.

The invention of the Gutenburg Press was probably one of the most revolutionary in history so far as it meant that information and ideas could be mass produced and spread around the world. Although, this method of printing would not become readily available to the rest of the world for quite some time as Gutenberg and his associates kept the process in which the metal blocks were made a trade secret. Not only that, making the printing press was a lengthy process and they were hard to transport due to their massive weight.

The cities that were able to obtain a printing press benefited from a higher economic growth compared to the cities that didn’t. For the cities that did, the price of printed materials and books were lowered, which in turn gave the less wealthy and educated an opportunity to obtain and learn from them. For example, mathematics books were now being printed on a large scale, such as the Treviso Arithmetic in 1478, enabling students to better calculate things such as exchange rates, interest rates and profit shares. It advanced many of the important professions that run our society today such as doctors, lawyers and teachers just to name a few. On a bigger level, over time these cities grew in terms of human capital accumulation and technological advances. It created more jobs for the likes of paper mill workers, translators, teachers and even more students for that fact. Before the time of the printing press, much of the wealth was obtained via commerce and trading but now the way was paved for the beginning of industrial production.


Published in IXD102


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