Johannes Gutenberg was a German inventor who lived during the 1400s and is often credited with inventing the printing press, or a mechanic device by which humans were able to begin printing the written word without having to handwrite everything. While his contribution to the world should not be diminished, the truth is that Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press but rather made it accessible as well as popular. Simply put, the idea and innovation behind the printing press existed long before Gutenberg was even born.

oldest book

This copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed in 868 AD.

Who Invented The Printing Press?

Printed, as in not handwritten, works have existed for a long time, as people have almost always been interested in finding an easier and faster way to give and receive information. Long before the printing press, people would use blocks of wood carved with the letters or pictures they wanted to convey, paint or dip the blocks in ink, and press the inked blocks against paper or cloth to create the message they wanted to share. However, this was extremely time-consuming.

The printing press is a machine that was created to make printing messages easier. It offered moveable type or the option to put together a message with symbols that could be moved and reused as many times as one liked without having to print each letter, word, or symbol one by one. The first movable type machine, and therefore, the first printing press, was created by a man named Bi Sheng who lived in Yingshan, China from what we believe to be 970 to 1051, over four full centuries before Gutenberg was even born.

We don’t actually have any of Sheng’s written books, but we do have a book that was printed by another Chinese man, Wang Zhen, who improved on the original device centuries later. His book, Book of Agriculture, was printed in 1313 and even has a description in it of how his device worked. Finally, a man named Baegun, a Korean monk, created another kind of moveable type technology, which was made of metal.

chinese printing press

Why Does Gutenberg Get All the Credit?

Despite all these facts, Johannes Gutenberg gets the credit for inventing the printing press for a number of reasons. For one, this type of historical erasure happens all the time; people who weren’t male, white, or European often didn’t get credit for their accomplishments and instead praise was usually heaped on those who were. In addition, though, Gutenberg did make a mighty difference to the history of the printing press by making it accessible to the public.

gutenberg printing press

First off, the Chinese language has many characters, which made even movable type way more complicated than when it was used for the English language. Gutenberg was able to streamline the technology to require only capital letters, lowercase letters, and punctuation. In addition, his machine, which still had to be operated by a person, was much easier to use, making it something many people and businesses were able to obtain. As a result, the printing press made the printed word easier to create and less expensive for those who wanted to purchase books and other printed material.

Did Gutenberg Know He Wasn’t the First?

At the time when Gutenberg was making his printing press, there was quite a bit of trade and communication between the East and the West, so it’s likely Gutenberg didn’t come up with the idea independently. Instead, he probably heard of or saw the technology and decided to improve upon it.

Even now, it is important to note that Gutenberg did not invent the printing press. We remember him because he made it popular and easy to use, but sometimes, we forget he wasn’t the first to envision the technology.

By Julia Tilford, contributor for