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Movable type (British English 'Moveable Type') is the system and technology of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation) usually on the medium of paper which was first invented in ancient China.
The world's first movable type printing press technology for printing paper books was made of ceramic porcelain china materials and invented in ancient China around AD 1040 by the Han Chinese innovator Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). In 1377, currently the oldest extant movable metal print book, Jikji, was printed in Korea. The diffusion of both movable-type systems was, however, limited. They were expensive, and required a high amount of labor involved in manipulating the thousands of ceramic tablets or metal tablets, required for scripts based on the ancient Chinese writing script, which has thousands of characters.
Around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg made another version of a metal movable-type printing press in Europe, along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould. The more limited number of characters needed for European languages was an important factor. Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony—and these materials remained standard for 550 years.
For alphabetic scripts, movable-type page setting was quicker than woodblock printing. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type in Europe and the use of printing presses spread rapidly. The printing press may be regarded as one of the key factors fostering the Renaissance and due to its effectiveness, its use spread around the globe.
The 19th-century invention of hot metal typesetting and its successors caused movable type to decline in the 20th century.
Precursors to movable type
Letter punch and coins
The technique of imprinting multiple copies of symbols or glyphs with a master type punch made of hard metal first developed around 3000 BC in ancient Sumer. These metal punch types can be seen as precursors of the letter punches adapted in later millennia to printing with movable metal type. Cylinder seals were used in Mesopotamia to create an impression on a surface by rolling the seal on wet clay. They were used to "sign" documents and mark objects as the owner's property. Cylinder seals were a related form of early typography capable of printing small page designs in relief (cameo) on wax or clay—a miniature forerunner of rotogravure printing used by wealthy individuals to seal and certify documents. By 650 BC the ancient Greeks were using larger diameter punches to imprint small page images onto coins and tokens.
The designs of the artists who made the first coin punches were stylized with a degree of skill that could not be mistaken for common handiwork—salient and very specific types designed to be reproduced ad infinitum. Unlike the first typefaces used to print books in the 13th century, coin types were neither combined nor printed with ink on paper, but "published" in metal—a more durable medium—and survived in substantial numbers. As the portable face of ruling authority, coins were a compact form of standardized knowledge issued in large editions, an early mass medium that stabilized trade and civilization throughout the Mediterranean world of antiquity.
Seals and stamps
Seals and stamps may have been precursors to movable type. The uneven spacing of the impressions on brick stamps found in the Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Larsa, dating from the 2nd millennium BC, has been conjectured by some archaeologists as evidence that the stamps were made using movable type. The enigmatic Minoan Phaistos Disc of 1800–1600 BC has been considered by one scholar as an early example of a body of text being reproduced with reusable characters: it may have been produced by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic "seals" into the soft clay. A few authors even view the disc as technically meeting all definitional criteria to represent an early incidence of movable-type printing. Recently it has been alleged by Jerome Eisenberg that the disk is a forgery.
Following the invention of paper in the 2nd century AD during the Chinese Han Dynasty, writing materials became more portable and economical than the bones, shells, bamboo slips, metal or stone tablets, silk, etc. previously used. Yet copying books by hand was still labour-consuming. Not until the Xiping Era (172-178 AD), towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty did sealing print and monotype appear. It was soon used for printing designs on fabrics, and later for printing texts.
Woodblock printing, invented by about the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty, worked as follows. First, the neat hand-copied script was stuck on a relatively thick and smooth board, with the front of the paper, which was so thin that it was nearly transparent, sticking to the board, and characters showing in reverse, but distinctly, so that every stroke could be easily recognized. Then carvers cut away the parts of the board that were not part of the character, so that the characters were cut in relief, completely differently from those cut intaglio. When printing, the bulging characters would have some ink spread on them and be covered by paper. With workers’ hands moving on the back of paper gently, characters would be printed on the paper. By the Song Dynasty, woodblock printing came to its heyday. Although woodblock printing played an influential role in spreading culture, there remained some apparent drawbacks. Firstly, carving the printing plate required considerable time, labour and materials; secondly, it was not convenient to store these plates; and finally, it was difficult to correct mistakes.
With woodblock printing, one printing plate could be used for tens of hundreds of books, playing a magnificent role in spreading culture. Yet carving the plate was time and labour consuming. Huge books cost years of effort. The plates needed a lot of storage space, and were often damaged by deformation, worms and corrosion. If books had a small print run, and were not reprinted, the printing plates would become nothing but waste; and worse, if a mistake was found, it was difficult to correct it without discarding the whole plate.
Ceramic movable type
Bi Sheng (毕昇/畢昇) (990–1051) developed the first known movable-type system for printing in China around 1040 AD during the Northern Song dynasty, using ceramic materials. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (沈括) (1031–1095):
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.
If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither simple nor easy. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was marvelously quick. As a rule he kept two forms going. While the impression was being made from the one form, the type was being put in place on the other. When the printing of the one form was finished, the other was then ready. In this way the two forms alternated and the printing was done with great rapidity.
In 1193, Zhou Bida, an officer of Southern Song Dynasty, made a set of clay movable-type method according to the method described by Shen Kuo in his Dream Pool Essays, and printed his book Notes of The Jade Hall (《玉堂杂记》).
The claim that Bi Sheng's clay types were "fragile" and "not practical for large-scale printing" and "short lived" was refuted by facts and experiments. Bao Shicheng (1775–1885) wrote that baked clay moveable type was "as hard and tough as horn"; experiments show that clay type, after being baked in an oven, becomes hard and difficult to break, such that it remains intact after being dropped from a height of two metres onto a marble floor. The length of clay movable types in China was 1 to 2 centimetres, not 2mm, thus hard as horn.
There has been an ongoing debate regarding the success of ceramic printing technology as there have been no printed materials found with ceramic movable types. However, it is historically recorded to have been used as late as 1844 in China from the Song dynasty through the Qing dynasty.:22
Wooden movable type
Bi Sheng (990–1051) also pioneered the use of wooden movable type around 1040 AD, as described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095). However, this technology was abandoned in favour of clay movable types due to the presence of wood grains and the unevenness of the wooden type after being soaked in ink.
In 1298, Wang Zhen (王祯/王禎), a Yuan dynasty governmental official of Jingde County, Anhui Province, China, re-invented a method of making movable wooden types. He made more than 30,000 wooden movable types and printed 100 copies of Records of Jingde County (《旌德县志》), a book of more than 60,000 Chinese characters. Soon afterwards, he summarized his invention in his book A method of making moveable wooden types for printing books. Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down, and the types could only be replaced by carving new pieces. This system was later enhanced by pressing wooden blocks into sand and casting metal types from the depression in copper, bronze, iron or tin. This new method overcame many of the shortcomings of woodblock printing. Rather than manually carving an individual block to print a single page, movable type printing allowed for the quick assembly of a page of text. Furthermore, these new, more compact type fonts could be reused and stored. The set of wafer-like metal stamp types could be assembled to form pages, inked, and page impressions taken from rubbings on cloth or paper. In 1322，a Fenghua county officer Ma Chengde (马称德) in Zhejiang, made 100,000 wooded movable types and printed the 43-volume Daxue Yanyi (《大学衍义》). Wooden movable types were used continually in China. Even as late as 1733, a 2300-volume Wuying Palace Collected Gems Edition (《武英殿聚珍版丛书》) was printed with 253,500 wooden movable types on order of the Yongzheng Emperor, and completed in one year.
A number of books printed in Tangut script during the Western Xia (1038–1227) period are known, of which the Auspicious Tantra of All-Reaching Union that was discovered in the ruins of Baisigou Square Pagoda in 1991 is believed to have been printed sometime during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Western Xia (1139–1193). It is considered by many Chinese experts to be the earliest extant example of a book printed using wooden movable type.
The logistical problems of handling the several thousand logographs (required for full literacy in Chinese language) posed a particular difficulty. It was faster to carve one woodblock per page than to composit a page from so many different types. However, if one used movable type to produce multiple copies of the same document, the speed of printing would increase relatively.:201
Metal movable type in China
At least 13 material finds in China indicate the invention of bronze movable type printing in China no later than the 12th century, with the country producing large-scale bronze-plate-printed paper money and formal official documents issued by the Jin (1115–1234) and Southern Song (1127–1279) dynasties with embedded bronze metal types for anti-counterfeit markers. Such paper-money printing might date back to the 11th-century jiaozi of Northern Song (960–1127) .:41-54
The typical example of this kind of bronze movable type embedded copper-block printing is a printed "check" of the Jin Dynasty with two square holes for embedding two bronze movable-type characters, each selected from 1,000 different characters, such that each printed paper note has a different combination of markers. A copper-block printed note dated between 1215–1216 in the collection of Luo Zhenyu's Pictorial Paper Money of the Four Dynasties, 1914, shows two special characters - one called Ziliao, the other called Zihao - for the purpose of preventing counterfeiting; over the Ziliao there is a small character (輶) printed with movable copper type, while over the Zihao there is an empty square hole - apparently the associated copper metal type was lost. Another sample of Song dynasty money of the same period in the collection of the Shanghai Museum has two empty square holes above Ziliao as well as Zihou, due to the loss of the two copper movable types. Song dynasty bronze block embedded with bronze metal movable type printed paper money was issued on a large scale and remained in circulation for a long time.
The 1298 book Zao Huozi Yinshufa (《造活字印书法》/《造活字印書法》) of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) official Wang Zhen mentions tin movable type, used probably since the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), but this was largely experimental. It was unsatisfactory due to its incompatibility with the inking process.:217
During the Mongol Empire (1206–1405), printing using movable type spread from China to Central Asia. The Uyghurs of Central Asia used movable type, their script type adopted from the Mongol language, some with Chinese words printed between the pages - strong evidence that the books were printed in China.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Hua Sui in 1490 used bronze type in printing books.:212 In 1574 the massive 1000-volume encyclopedia Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (《太平御览》/《太平御覧》) was printed with bronze movable type.
In 1725 the Qing Dynasty government made 250,000 bronze movable-type characters and printed 64 sets of the encyclopedic Gujin Tushu Jicheng (《古今图书集成》/《古今圖書集成》, Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings from the Earliest to Current Times). Each set consisted of 5,040 volumes, making a total of 322,560 volumes printed using movable type.
Metal movable type in Korea
In 1234, the first books that are known to have been printed in metallic type set were published in Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. These are a set of ritual books, Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun. This is credited to Choe Yun-ui.
While these books are not extant, the oldest book in the world that was printed in metallic movable types is Jikji, printed in Korea in 1377. Examples of this metal type are on display in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. About the invention of the metallic types by Koreans, French scholar Henri-Jean Martin described this as '[extremely similar] to Gutenberg's'.
The techniques for bronze casting, used at the time for making coins (as well as bells and statues) were adapted to making metal type. The following description of the Korean font casting process was recorded by the Joseon dynasty scholar Seong Hyeon (성현, 成俔, 1439–1504):
At first, one cuts letters in beech wood. One fills a trough level with fine sandy [clay] of the reed-growing seashore. Wood-cut letters are pressed into the sand, then the impressions become negative and form letters [moulds]. At this step, placing one trough together with another, one pours the molten bronze down into an opening. The fluid flows in, filling these negative moulds, one by one becoming type. Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged.
A potential solution to the linguistic and cultural bottleneck that held back movable type in Korea for 200 years appeared in the early 15th century—a generation before Gutenberg would begin working on his own movable-type invention in Europe—when Sejong the Great devised a simplified alphabet of 24 characters (hangul) for use by the common people, which could have made the typecasting and compositing process more feasible. Adoption of the new alphabet was stifled by Korea's cultural elite, who were "appalled at the idea of losing hanja, the badge of their elitism."
Proliferation of movable type was also obstructed by a "Confucian prohibition on the commercialization of printing" restricted the distribution of books produced using the new method to the government. The technique was restricted to use by the royal foundry for official state publications only, where the focus was on reprinting Chinese classics lost in 1126 when Korea's libraries and palaces had perished in a conflict between dynasties.
Metal movable type in Europe
Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany is acknowledged as the first to invent a metal movable-type printing system in Europe, the printing press. Gutenberg was a goldsmith familiar with techniques of cutting punches for making coins from moulds. Between 1436 and 1450 he developed hardware and techniques for casting letters from matrices using a device called the hand mould. Gutenberg's key invention and contribution to movable-type printing in Europe, the hand mould was the first practical means of making cheap copies of letterpunches in the vast quantities needed to print complete books, making the movable-type printing process a viable enterprise.
Before Gutenberg, books were copied out by hand on scrolls and paper, or printed from hand-carved wooden blocks. It was extremely time-consuming; even a small book could take months to complete, and because the carved letters or blocks were flimsy and the wood susceptible to ink the blocks had a limited lifespan.
Gutenberg and his associates developed oil-based inks ideally suited to printing with a press on paper, and the first Latin typefaces. His method of casting type may have been different from the hand mould used in subsequent decades. Detailed analysis of the type used in his 42-line Bible has revealed irregularities in some of the characters that cannot be attributed to ink spread or type wear under the pressure of the press. Scholars conjecture that the type pieces may have been cast from a series of matrices made with a series of individual stroke punches, producing many different versions of the same glyph.
It has also been suggested that the method used by Gutenberg involved using a single punch to make a mould, but the mould was such that the process of taking the type out disturbed the casting, creating variants and anomalies, and that the punch-matrix system came into use possibly around the 1470s. This raises the possibility that the development of movable type in the West may have been progressive rather than a single innovation.
Gutenberg's movable-type printing system spread rapidly across Europe, from the single Mainz printing press in 1457 to 110 presses by 1480, of which 50 were in Italy. Venice quickly became the center of typographic and printing activity. Significant were the contributions of Nicolas Jenson, Francesco Griffo, Aldus Manutius, and other printers of late 15th-century Europe.
Type-founding as practiced in Europe and the west consists of three stages.
Punchcutting: If the glyph design includes enclosed spaces (counters) then a counterpunch is made. The counter shapes are transferred in relief (cameo) onto the end of a rectangular bar of mild steel using a specialized engraving tool called a graver. The finished counterpunch is hardened by heating and quenching (tempering), or exposure to a cyanide solution (case hardening).
The counterpunch is then struck against the end of a similar rectangular steel bar—the letterpunch—to impress the counter shapes as recessed spaces (intaglio). The outer profile of the glyph is completed by scraping away with a graver the material outside the counter spaces, leaving only the stroke or lines of the glyph. Progress toward the finished design is checked by successive smoke proofs; temporary prints made from a thin coating of carbon deposited on the punch surface by a candle flame. The finished letter punch is finally hardened to withstand the rigors of reproduction by striking.
One counterpunch and one letterpunch are produced for every letter or glyph making up a complete font.
Matrix: The letterpunch is used to strike a blank die of soft metal to make a negative letter mould, called a matrix.
Casting: The matrix is inserted into the bottom of a device called a hand mould. The mould is clamped shut and molten type metal alloy consisting mostly of lead and tin, with a small amount of antimony for hardening, is poured into a cavity from the top. Antimony has the rare property of expanding as it cools, giving the casting sharp edges. When the type metal has sufficiently cooled, the mould is unlocked and a rectangular block approximately 4 centimeters long, called a sort, is extracted. Excess casting on the end of the sort, called the tang, is later removed to make the sort the precise height required for printing, known as "type height".
The type-height was quite different in different countries. The Monotype Corporation Limited in London UK produced moulds in various heights:
- 0.918 inches (23.3 mm) : United Kingdom, Canada, U.S.
- 0.928 inches (23.6 mm) : France, Germany, Switzerland and most other European countries
- 0.933 inches (23.7 mm) : Belgium height
- 0.9785 inches (24.85 mm) : Dutch height
- 62.027 points Didot = 23.30 millimetres (0.917 in) = English height
- 62.666 points Didot = 23.55 millimetres (0.927 in) = French height
- 62.685 points Didot = 23.56 millimetres (0.928 in) = German height
- 66.047 points Didot = 24.85 millimetres (0.978 in) = Dutch Height
Tiny differences in type-height will cause quite bold images of characters.
Modern, factory-produced movable type was available in the late 19th century. It was held in the printing shop in a job case, a drawer about 2 inches high, a yard wide, and about two feet deep, with many small compartments for the various letters and ligatures. The most popular and accepted of the job case designs in America was the California Job Case, which took its name from the Pacific coast location of the foundries that made the case popular.
Traditionally, the capital letters were stored in a separate drawer or case that was located above the case that held the other letters; this is why capital letters are called "upper case" characters while the non-capitals are "lower case".
Compartments also held spacers, which are blocks of blank type used to separate words and fill out a line of type, such as em and en quads (quadrats, or spaces. A quadrat is a block of type whose face is lower than the printing letters so that it does not itself print.). An em space was the width of a capital letter "M" – as wide as it was high – while an en space referred to a space half the width of its height (usually the dimensions for a capital "N").
Individual letters are assembled into words and lines of text with the aid of a composing stick, and the whole assembly is tightly bound together to make up a page image called a forme, where all letter faces are exactly the same height to form a flat surface of type. The forme is mounted on a printing press, a thin coating of viscous ink is applied and impressions made on paper under great pressure in the press. "Sorts" is the term given to special characters not freely available in the typical type case, such as the "@" mark.
Metal type combined with other methods
Sometimes it is erroneously stated that printing with metal type replaced the earlier methods. In the industrial era printing methods would be chosen to suit the purpose. For example, when printing large scale letters in posters etc. the metal type would have proved too heavy and economically unviable. Thus, large scale type was made as carved wood blocks as well as ceramics plates. Also in many cases where large scale text was required, it was simpler to hand the job to a sign painter than a printer. Images could be printed together with movable type if they were made as woodcuts or wood engravings as long as the blocks were made to the same type height. If intaglio methods, such as copper plates, were used for the images, then images and the text would have required separate print runs on different machines.
- History of printing in East Asia
- History of Western typography
- Odhecaton — the first sheet music printed with movable type
- Spread of European movable type printing
- Type foundry
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Bi Sheng... who first devised, about 1045, the art of printing with movable type
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"the latter has cuneiform signs that look as if made with a movable type, and impressions from Assur display the same phenomenon
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近世又铸锡作字, 以铁条贯之 (rendering: In the modern times, there's melten Tin Movable type, and linked them with iron bar)
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- The classic manual of hand-press technology is
- Moxon, Joseph (1683–84). "Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing" (ed. Herbert Davies & Harry Carter. New York: Dover Publications, 1962, reprint ed.).
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