Bi Sheng’s Big Night

“During the reign of Chingli, about the year 1040 of the Common Era, Bi Sheng of Bianliang, a man of unofficial position, invented moveable type…

“His method was as follows: he 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.

“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. 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.

“For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page.

“When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases….”

– via Wikipedia, via Shen Kuo

One night, just shy of a thousand years ago, one of us had an idea. A complex, multi-step idea. An audacious idea that he would carry out the next day. Would it work? There were so many steps, all untried. Would people accept it? People misunderstood when he tried to tell them about it. Would it make a difference? Even though Bi Sheng had belief in his work, he must have thought this over and over, wrestling with anticipation, that whole night through.

It’s a similar night tonight. Except there are more of us now. Bi Sheng’s work let any printer compose any book without the need for custom woodblocks. Now we’re on the verge of any creative person being able to reach nearly any device.

Any person, any experience, any screen.

I bet Bi Sheng was excited, on that last night before his first real test. I know I sure am. There’s tons more work yet to do, but it’s truly exhilarating to see the first results.