Movable metal type, part 1a – Jackson fights back

Following on from some comments on his previous article about moveable metal type, which expressed some doubts as to the justification behind its hallowed status amongst Koreans, Matthew Jackson investigates further, and returns to his original conclusion that it is a unique and extraordinary contribution to world history.

1. Mechanized versus non-mechanized

To say that Korean moveable metal type was less revolutionary because it was not mechanized like the Gutenberg printing press would not be strictly correct. In the first place, Korea was not lacking in the technology to develop a mechanised printing press. This is clear from other inventions, such the automated, self-striking water clock made in the 15th century, the first of its kind in the world, which took modern experts more than 20 years to recreate. The Sokkuram Grotto demonstrates that a mastery of geometry and applied mathematics existed in the 8th century, long before the invention of the printing press, and were used to achieve levels of precision far beyond modern standards.

The hand-operated Gutenberg press
The hand-operated Gutenberg press

Though mechanized, one should bear in mind that Gutenberg’s press was in fact a very simple machine, and operated by hand. The automated printing press, operated by steam or electricity, appeared only after the Industrial Revolution some 300 years later.

The machine was adapted from an existing model used to make olive oil. It was mechanized primarily because the paper used was very thick and required pressure. In Korea, quality paper existed from the fifth century AD. By the time of the printing press, the paper was transparent and thin, although very durable, and suitable for calligraphy. There was no need to apply pressure – by placing paper upon the inked types, and then brushing it, the letters appeared with ease.

On the other hand, paper manufacturing began in Europe around the 13th century. The technique, which came through Asia and the Middle East, was at an early stage of development even during Gutenberg’s time, and the paper was thick. Hence, a machine was necessary.

2. Korea’s literary heritage and culture

Detail from the Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol
Detail from the Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol

Heungdeok, where the the jikji simche yojeol (left) was printed, was a small temple in the region of Cheong-ju. Although little more than a remote rural shrine situated far from the then capital of Korea, Kaesong, excavation of the site revealed that the temple had manufactured its own metal types, as well as other metal utensils required for Buddhist ceremonies.

The fact that a small temple made its own printing equipment shows that printing with metal type (or woodblocks) was very common in the Koryo period (918~1392).

In the Choson dynasty (1392~1897), because metal was generally reserved for the manufacture of weapons, ordinary citizens were forbidden to use the metal press. While official publications, or literature of particular import, continued to be printed using the metal type, ordinary writers had literature printed with moveable wooden type instead.

It was not a coincidence that Korea invented the metal type. Previous achievements had led up to it, as evidenced by the world’s oldest woodblock print, The Great Dharani Sutra of Undefiled Pure Radiance, and the world’s largest collection of woodblocks, the Tripitaka Koreana, which would reach more than twice the size of Ben Nevis, the highest point in UK – 1344 metres – if piled on top of one another.

A historical record from 1123 states that there were many rare and precious books in Korea, with 5,000 volumes exported each year. The library of Cambridge University, by comparison, was one of the largest in Europe in 1430, and the entire collection comprised 122 books.

A Song dynasty envoy reported that “in every village in Koryo, we heard people reciting books out loud, and the people of the country considered illiteracy a terrible disgrace”. The French Navy, which invaded Kanghwa Island in 1886, were taken aback when they saw that even the houses of peasants had books inside, and that both the standard of publishing and appreciation of literature were universally high.

An English scholar J. Gare observed, “While we had one Chaucher, Koryo had a great army of writers and literary figures”. A great corpus of literature survives to this day, including works from as far back as the Silla (BC 1C~935) and Koryo (918~1392) periods.

3. Societal impact of the printing press and comparisons with China

King Sejong (r 1418 - 1450)
King Sejong (r 1418 - 1450)

It could be said that the invention of the metal type in Korea did not have the same societal impact in Asia as the Gutenberg printing press did in Europe. With printing technology that was already widely available, however, many copies of sutras and literature had been printed and distributed, and the general level of literacy was high. Historical evidence indicates that printing was already widespread well before 1377 (the year of the jikji simche yojeol – Korea’s oldest surviving metal type print), and particularly after the beginning of the 15th century. The use of these types grew rapidly, so that during the 32 years of the reign of King Sejong, a contemporary of Gutenberg, several thousand print runs of 120 publications were made, covering history, agriculture, literature, jurisprudence and science. To make a simple comparison with Europe is not appropriate.

The key features of metal type were

  1. the technology used to cast the type itself;
  2. the use of oil-based ink, which lends itself well to metal type printing (water-based ink is used for woodblock printing); and
  3. with moveable type, any work could be printed using different combinations of individualized types, as opposed to engraving the entire contents of a page on to a woodblock panel.

Since its invention in the Koryo period, moveable metal type continued to evolve under King Taejong and Sejong of Choson, with many innovations in the form of new typefaces and settings. Up to the introduction of mechanized printing in the West towards the end of Choson dynasty, they continued to play a pivotal role in the publication and distribution of literature.

The invention of metal type in Korea was truly pioneering, and it cannot fairly be regarded as inferior to the Gutenberg press. To devalue its contribution by a simple comparison without the necessary contextual background is misleading. For these reasons, it seems that Korea’s literacy levels, history of active book publishing and advanced printing technology deserve more recognition.

4 thoughts on “Movable metal type, part 1a – Jackson fights back

  1. European paper was thicker than Korean and Chinese paper not necessarily because of inexperience because in making paper, but because it was used as a cheaper substitute for parchment. The thinner Korean style paper would not have been suitable for the writing methods developed for writing on parchment.

    Although Korean and Chinese printing did not need to use a press, using a mechanical press to imprint the writing on the paper with a quick turn of a lever would likely to have been faster than having to carefully manual brush the paper. Gutenberg style printing could produce 300 printed pages a day, while Korean printing could only produce 40 pages* (*see 2006 article by Hae-Jae Lee, Sookmyung Women’s University Korea. I found article on the internet). While the difference is partly explained by the greater amount of time required to set the type, some of the difference must be due to the the greater time required on printing each page.

  2. I think as you mention, the difference is due to the typesetting (as there are many more Chinese characters than there are letters in the Roman alphabet) rather than the quality of the printing technology itself. I’m conscious that this discussion is potentially a long one, and there is scope to debate the relative merits of the Gutenberg press vs the Korean version. However, the fact that the Korean version existed at the time it did is and will always be impressive. Men may be walking on the moon in AD 2169 with greater ease and frequency, 200 years after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong first made the achievement, but the initial achievement is still the same and should not be forgotten.

  3. The thickness of the European paper was to make it more closely resemble parchment, which had been the primary European writing material, so that the techniques and methods developed for parchment could be used for paper. A bonus was that unlike Korean and Chinese paper, European paper could be printed on both sides.

    One disadvantage of Korean type was the use of bronze, which had a much higher melting point than the type (lead-antimony) alloy used by Gutenberg, and the fact that bronze, unlike the type metal alloy of Gutenberg, shrank when it cooled. More work was required to make the bronze Korean type as a result. Because bronze shrank as it cooled, more work was needed to finish up the type after it cooled. Type metal alloy had the unusual property of expanding when it cooled, meaning the type had less distortion, and less work was needed after casting it.

    Also, the Korean type was was made with one time sand molds, and when new type had to be cast, new molds had to be made using the punches, which meant that punches had to be kept on hand to make more type. Gutenberg type used permanent copper molds, which meant that the punches were not needed after making the molds, and the use of steel punches meant large numbers of molds could be made, and a single set of punches could provide molds for a number of separate print shops. Since making the punches was the only part of the print process that required a master craftsman, this gave a decided advantage to the Gutenberg method, since to set up a Korean print shop capable of making its own replacement type required making a set of punches for each printing shop. If European had adopted the Korean method instead of the Gutenberg one, printing in Europe would have not spread nearly as fast or replace manual book making so quickly.

  4. Good to be back in dialogue after all these years 🙂

    Lead type: Sejong, a contemporary of Gutenberg, introduced lead-based type during his reign in order to provide larger letters for the elderly and those with failing eyesight. This was covered in the next post in the series ( and more fully in chapter 2 of the publication ‘Fifty Wonders of Korea’ (

    Korean paper: I’m not quite sure what the discussion has now become on this issue. I’m not sure how many people use parchment any more, but Korean paper is continually finding new uses, including as material for speaker cones, and artificial muscles in robotics (see chapter 48 of The Vatican is now using it for restoration purposes (having previously used the Japanese washi paper). See the video here:

    For a response to your other point about sand molds, I’ll save that for a future post 🙂

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