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BI SHENG WAS unknown to me until I read that he, not Gutenberg, first devised movable type. This prompted me to dig out the research books, fire up the Internet.
Chronological Erratum. All the printed sources I consulted (including several published this year) give credit to Johannes Gutenberg for invention of movable type around 1439. However, Wikipedia comes to my rescue: “Bi Sheng’s system was made of Chinese porcelain and was invented between 1039 and 1048 during the medieval Song dynasty.”
Documentation by a Polymath. Bi Sheng’s invention was given a detailed description by a contemporary of his, a fellow worthy of note: Shen Kuo was a polymath in the Song dynasty, which flourished from 960 to 1279.
And when Wikipedia says “polymathic,” it isn’t exaggerating: Shen Kuo’s specialities were as varied as antiquarian, botanist, mathematician, military general, and 30 more.
Shen Kuo’s Dream Pool Essays, Mengxi Bitan, c. 1088, describes Bi Sheng’s printing process in detail: “[Bi Sheng] 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.”
This is the porcelain-making process cited by Wikipedia.
The description then describes the actual printing: “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.”
Mengxi Bitan continues, “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. 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.”
Bi Sheng even had efficiency in mind: “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.”
Bi Sheng’s Legacy. The Bisheng Community(畢昇社區) in Wenquan, Huanggang, Hubei is named for Bi Sheng. The Bi Sheng crater located in the LAC-7 quadrant near the northern pole on the far side of the Moon was named after Bi Sheng by the IAU in August 2010.
Gutenberg has more stuff honoring him, but Bi Sheng was first. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021