Bi Sheng - the Inventor of Movable Type
Bi Sheng (毕升 990-1051 AD) was the inventor of the first known movable type printing press technology. Bi Sheng's press was made of Chinese porcelain and was invented between 1041 and 1048 in China.
Bi Sheng was a commoner and his ancestry and details were not recorded. He was recorded only in the Writings Beside the Dream Pool Essays (梦溪笔谈) by Chinese scholar, official, and polymath scientist Shen Kuo (沈括) (1031–1095). Writings Beside the Dream Pool Essays, however, gave detailed and sufficient description on the technical details of Bi Sheng's invention of movable type:
During the reign of Qingli (1041-1048), Bi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste at the back was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.
For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.
Bi Sheng invented it on the basis of reforming the engraving type. At first he sawed wood into small pieces, and then lettered every small piece of wood to make movable Chinese characters. According to what characters an article needed, he arranged the needed characters on an iron board. After printing , all these characters could be reused.
It did not take him much time to make 3,000 of the most commonly used characters. Since it was hard to find a single character from out of the 3,000 characters, Sheng decided to put the characters in dozens of wood plates according to their first syllable of pronunciation.
Later, Sheng also made movable characters from earth (such as soil or clay) successfully. To be more efficient, he prepared two iron boards. When one was being used for printing, the other could be used to arrange characters for the next page or other articles. When the printing of the characters on the former iron board was finished, people could use the latter board, which was already arranged, to continue printing. Then the characters on the former board could be taken off for future use or to assemble another page. By using the two boards alternately, people could print faster.
Sheng prepared several movable characters for every character, or even scores for some very frequently used ones, as obviously many times one character would be used several times on a page. If an uncommon word was required, Sheng could letter it very quickly and put it in a kiln to bake, which was also very convenient.
Although what Bi Sheng invented was simple when compared to the printing in modern society, it already had the main traits of movable type printing: making movable letters, typesetting, and printing.
Movable type printing was a huge reform in the history of printing and contributed much to human civilization.