It’s an invention that changed the world utterly, ushering in massive social change, splitting apart a religion once considered beyond question, and making the advent of Buddhism in the West possible. It’s movable type, and its story is well known, widely repeated—but often incomplete.

“A few records less, and we would not now be revering the Gutenberg Bible as his,” historian John Man has written about the 15th-century German printer Johannes Gutenberg. “All we would have would be the results: an idea that changed the world, and a book that is among the most astonishing objects ever created, a jewel of art and technology, one that emerged fully formed. . . .”

Books are astonishing pieces of art and technology. But they did not emerge fully formed from the mind of any one person. Rather, the arrival of mass-produced books relied on the actions of many people over centuries. Some of those people—and some of the oldest printed texts in the world—were Buddhist.

The history of mass printing in the West is often explained more or less like this: In the 1440s, a German man named Johannes Gutenberg founded a book-printing workshop. The book had become established in Europe long before, in the 4th century, but for a thousand years it could only be reproduced through impractical methods: either laborious hand-copying—which limited the number of copies and the diversity of the printed texts—or woodblock printing, which involved carving each individual page in one unchangeable piece. Gutenberg saw a way to revolutionize printing with movable type: individual, three-dimensional metal letters that could be arranged in a frame, covered in ink, used to print many pages in rapid succession, and rearranged in new frames as needed.

Gutenberg’s plan began bearing fruit in 1450, when he printed a short text. But it took till 1454 for his world-altering work to truly succeed. That year, he produced a complete Bible, 1,275 pages of 42 lines each. The print run of about 160 to 180 copies soon sold out.

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