The inventor of the world's first movable-type printing press was not Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395-1468), nor was the first such press built in Europe. In fact China was the home of the first printing press to use movable type, as opposed to printing from carved blocks—which was also invented in China. It was the blacksmith and alchemist Pi Sheng who developed movable type from baked clay, and he did so four centuries before Gutenberg.
The details of Pi Sheng's life are unknown; indeed, sources differ as to the date of his invention, which could have occurred anywhere between 1034 and 1048. It is much easier, however, to discern the historical and technological context in which he created his press.
As with printing, paper had first made its appearance in China. It is possible that the Chinese were making paper as early as 49 b.c., but its invention is usually credited to Tsai-lung (c. 48-118). Paper was the first of the four inventions—including printing, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder—regularly cited by historians as the greatest technological contributions of premodern China. The lag between its invention in China and its development in Europe was also longer for paper than for the other three: not until the fourteenth century did Europeans begin making paper.
Then there was block printing, whereby a printer carved out characters on a piece of wood. No single individual is credited with the invention of block printing: most likely it was the creation of seventh-century Buddhist monks who needed copies of sacred texts faster than they could produce them by hand. For ink, they used the black substance secreted by burning wood and oil in lamps. Later, when Westerners adopted this innovation as well, they incorrectly called it "India ink."
The world's first printed text was a Buddhist scroll, later discovered in Korea and probably printed in China between 704 and 751. Within a few centuries, block printing in China—particularly by Buddhist monks—had assumed massive proportions. Thus by 1000, the Buddhists had printed all their scriptures, an effort that required 130,000 wood blocks and took 12 years to complete.
Clearly it would constitute an improvement if, rather than carving out a block of wood every time he wanted to print something, a printer had at his disposal precast pieces of type. Then whenever he wanted to print a document, he could simply assemble the characters he needed. This was the achievement of Pi Sheng, who developed type made out of baked clay. He placed pieces of type in an iron frame lined with warm wax, then pressed down on them with a board until the surface was perfectly flat. After the wax cooled, he used the tray of letters to print pages.
Impressive though it was, and in spite of the fact that Chinese printers used it for a few centuries, Pi Sheng's invention never really caught on in China. The reason was that with some 30,000 characters in the Chinese language, it was actually faster to carve out a block than to sort through endless trays of pre-cast blocks. The movable-type press made much more sense in Europe, where alphabets had only a few dozen characters.
When Gutenberg developed his press in about 1450 he used metal, a far more efficient material than clay, for his type. This, too, had been pioneered in the East: in about 1390 the Korean emperor Tsai-Tung had ordered his printers to create type made out of bronze.
In modern printers' jargon, "pi type" refers to type that uses an irregular font. Apparently this term is a reference to the Chinese father of movable-type printing.