Most Westerners are familiar with Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in 1450 which allowed the mass-production of books, namely the bible. In fact, the printing press is thought of as one of the crucial factors that triggered the Renaissance in Europe.
However, what most people do not know is that the movable type – a printing machine where individual letters can be rearranged and reused – was invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty two centuries before Gutenberg.
Before the movable type, Buddhist monks would carve out wooden blocks so that they could copy out religious texts with ease. But as this involved the monks having to carve out the entire text (often very long), it was extremely labour-intensive and everyone sought an easier method of mass-producing texts. The concept of the movable type was experimented with throughout the centuries, but it was found that woodblocks would wear out too fast. Although metal was the obvious choice, the technology was not developed enough to produce the fine letters.
In 1234, a Korean man called Choe Yun-ui finally devised the technology to invent the first metal movable type in the world. The process was very complicated, involving the making of durable clay moulds to hold the molten metal without breaking.
This was revolutionary as it meant that texts could easily be printed as all the printers had to do was rearrange pre-made letters in order rather than laboriously carving each one out. Metal movable types are also extremely durable and give a very clean print, unlike the wooden counterpart that tends to wear out or smudge. The metal movable type allowed for the mass-production of books which greatly boosted Goryeo’s culture and education within the poorer classes.
Korea was the leading innovator in the printing industry throughout history, with the earliest woodblock prints dating back to 751. The motivation to develop this technology was partly thanks to Buddhism. To ensure that Buddha’s teachings could be spread far and wide, Buddhist monks worked day and night to produce these texts. This was a critical job during the 13th century when the Mongol Empire was rampaging through the whole of Eurasia. As military force was insufficient to repel the invaders, the people turned to spirituality for power. Furthermore, due to the destructive nature of the Mongols, it was crucial to replace damaged texts to ensure that precious cultural heritages would not be destroyed. This was the main motivation for the creation of the metal movable type and to this day we can see the evidence of the state-of-the-art printing device in books from the 13th and 14th century.
One limitation still remained with the movable type – Chinese characters. At the time, Korea still used Chinese characters to record the Korean language (similar to how Chinese characters can be transcribed in pinyin form). As there are literally tens of thousands of characters, a massive amount of individual types had to be produced.
This problem was solved by King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty, who invented Hangul – the Korean alphabet. Hangul only contains 24 letters and is extremely logical in its construction, ergo it was a perfect system for recording language. It also meant that much less individual types were needed, making the printing process even more efficient.
Although the 20th and 21st century saw the Western Hemisphere leading science and technology innovations, it is important to remember that the East dominated the field for millennia before.