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This was too interesting to pass up.  From an article in io9:

After centuries of woodblock printing, a humble man named Bi Sheng invented movable type in the 1000s. Movable type is a system where each character (or letter, if you’re in a Western context) is carved or cast into a separate piece of material. These characters are then arranged on a block, inked, and pressed against paper. The characters can be rearranged as much as you like and reused — hence, the term “movable type.” 

We don’t have any examples of the books he produced, but we do have a remarkable description of the mechanism he invented, from a contemporary of Bi’s named Shen Kua:

 During the reign of Chingli, [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.

Over 350 years before Gutenberg was even born, the Chinese were experimenting with the technology that the German would later turn into a publishing empire.

More in the article.

 
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