Wang Zhen was born during the Yuan Dynasty of China in 1271. He became a government official and saw a need to advance the future of agriculture in China by documenting and publishing the many technical innovations he saw throughout China with the hope of alleviating poverty by spreading that knowledge. To achieve his ambition, an effective printing method would be needed to print not just a few copies but thousands of copies of an extensive manual, not only for the workers but also for officials who could guide their people.
Wang Zhen’s book, the Nong Shu or The Book of Farming was published in 1313 and had 800 pages and 100,000 words. It was a highly illustrated agricultural bible, full of Da Vinci-like drawings that would be used throughout China to instruct farmers and facilitate knowledge transfer.
Wang Zhen’s primary innovation was a system that improved the speed and efficiency of typesetting. It had rotary tables to help typesetters quickly sort and process thousands of carved wooden blocks for use in a printing press. This mass-produced book and the ensuing industry of printing would be part of the driving force for the growth of the paper industry internationally.
Wang Zhen explored several approaches but determined that wooden block movable type would be most effective since the many unique Chinese characters that would be needed could be quickly hand-carved. His work with wooden movable type was primarily conducted in the years 1297 or 1298.
Though not the inventor of movable type itself, he created the first mass-produced book. Its illustrations show a dizzying array of technologies such as water wheels, water-powered bellows, pumps, gears and pulleys, the blast furnace, and other inventions that were long attributed to later European inventors. Although controversial, one American author even argues that copies of the Nong Shu arriving in Italy may have inspired Da Vinci and sparked the Italian Renaissance. In any case, there is little doubt that Wang Zhen’s accomplishment should also be recognized with that of Gutenberg and other giants of innovation.
Gutenberg has been recognized as one of the greatest inventors of all time for the monumental impact he had on printing. His printed Bible has often been called the world’s first substantial mass-produced book printed with movable type. That achievement came in 1455, just 142 years after the world’s actual first mass-produced book printed with movable type by long-neglected inventor and government official, Wang Zhen.
Wang Zhen died in 1368.