Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Recognizing a Major Chinese Innovator: China's Answer to Gutenberg

For those interested in the contributions of China to innovation throughout history, a significant event will take place in a quiet little Midwest town this month that may interest you. On October 15, 2015, the  Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin will induct six people into its Hall of Fame. This unusual industrial hall of fame has around 120 or so honorees at the moment, mostly North American and European business leaders and scientists. This year, though, one of the new inductees is an innovator and leader from ancient China who can be considered as China’s answer to Gutenberg.

Gutenberg is frequently honored as one of the most important inventors ever for giving us the world’s first book printed with movable type. The printing of Gutenberg's Bible was a remarkable achievement from around 1455. As with many inventions long thought to have had European origins, there’s a touch of Eastern flavor in this one, for Gutenberg’s work came 142 years after the world’s first actual mass-produced printed book made with movable type, a Chinese book you probably haven't heard of. It's the large Book of Farming (or the Nong Shu) from China, printed in 1313 by Wang Zhen, as Wikipedia explains.

Wang Zhen was an official in central China in a difficult economic era in which famine was a serious risk. He recognized that vast amounts of agricultural technology scattered across the nation needed to be preserved to help all of China reduce famine and be more agriculturally productive. To achieve his quest of broadly spreading and archiving information, he took a Chinese invention, movable type, and improved it to create a practical way of organizing and selecting individual characters to print an entire book.

He used carved wooden blocks for each character, and developed a sophisticated way of arranging them on two rotating tables to allow typesetters to quickly find needed characters to place them in his press. The Nong Shu was printed and preserved many notable inventions in China, including an early form of a practical blast furnace for making molten iron driven with a reciprocating piston attached to water works, something long that to be a later European invention.

Recognizing Wang Zhen in the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame ( for his important role in the advance of printing and, indirectly, the growth of the paper industry, is a significant step.  I look forward to many more Asian inventors, scientists, and business leaders being recognized in the Hall of Fame in future years. The historical contributions of China in numerous fields have received far too little attention, and I’m delighted to see folks in Appleton taking the lead in rectifying this problem. Kudos to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!