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The history of the printed book

The printed book, believe it or not, can trace it’s origin all the way back to the ancient Sumerians from Sumer, in the heart of the Mesopotamia.

3500 BC – Symbols onto Tablets

Current understanding suggests that the very first attempts to transcribe symbols onto moveable materials were an ancient group of people known as Sumerians who lived in southern Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. Mesopotamia is an ancient name for the area in the middle east that stretches from the Zagros Mountains in the northeast to the spurs of the Anti-Taurus Mountains in the north-west and the Persian Gulf in the south-east to the Arabian Plateau in the south-west.

The Sumerians devised a “cuneiform” alphabet (a system that consists of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs), the symbols of which were etched into clay tablets with a triangle shaped stylus called a “Calamus” and then allowed to dry or fired in a kiln to make them last as long as possible. The Sumerians are believed to be the first people to ever use the Cuneiform script, which itself is the earliest known written system in the world.

In contrast to basic symbols put into stone tablets, the first people to create an actual printed book was the Chinese

The first printed book: 868

The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T’ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.

It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world’s first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in the religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.

Books did not become a popular or cultural phenom until the creation of movable time, allowing mass production of a wide varity of books

Movable type: from the 11th century

Movable type (separate ready-made characters or letters which can be arranged in the correct order for a particular text and then reused) is a necessary step before printing can become an efficient medium for disseminating information.

The concept is experimented with in China as early as the 11th century. But two considerations make the experiment unpractical. One is that the Chinese script has so many characters that type-casting and type-setting become too complex. The other is that the Chinese printers cast their characters in clay and then fire them as pottery, a substance too fragile for the purpose.

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