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The four great Inventions

Amazing to know - How comes and why!

More than 5000 years ago, science had already first peaks by inventing paper, printing, gunpowder and magnetic compass. Was China superior in science and technology a long time ago?

China is regarded as a miracle economy, and is well on its way to link up with the times of glorious discoveries. Traditionally, Chinese people have already been in search of scientific progress and inventions. The Chinese emperors put great emphasis on literature and art from early on. The four important inventions of paper, printing, gunpowder and compass changed considerably the development of mankind in the last few thousand years until today.


When was paper (zhi 纸) invented? We look back over 3000 years, when it was usual in China to write on bamboo or wooden tables, tortoise shells and animal bones. Initial findings on the presence of paper for writing deliver grave finds from the first century AD.  At that time, paper was made of bark, grasses and hemp. Later on, plant fibers like bamboo were used for the preparation of paper. As the inventor of paper,  Cai Lun was named, a court official in the He dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Cai Lun was the first scientist to describe the process for making paper in detail. In the early second century, he described the manufacture of paper from bark, wheat stalks, hemp and cotton fabrics. He crushed the materials and soaked them in a water bath. It resulted in a paper pulp which was cooked then, This pulp was then drained layer by layer with a colander. The resulting thin paper was dried and lent itself well to write. In the third century, the method of paper making spread to Japan an Korea and reached Europe in the 12th century.

Letter press

The invention and development of the letter press points to a long historical period. It goes back to the 2nd century, when people still wrote on stone slabs to produce paper printouts. Around 600 AD, the block printing with wood panels was invented for the first time in China. During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 BC), they developed a woodcut process with whole plates and a plate and block printing with printing plates.  As the inventor of the printing press, Bi Sheng is named. During the Sing dynasty (960 – 1048 AD), he evolved the block printing process and then invented in 1048 AD the printing with movable, interchangeable characters (huozi yinshua 活字印刷). Bi Sheng ordered individual characters from clay, wood, tin or lead for printing on an iron frame. After printing, it was possible to put together the characters in a new way. Thus the speed and quality of printing has been improved enormously. The technology was spread in Europe, Korea and Japan soon. In mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg in Germany invented the printing press with movable iron characters. The invention of printing is one of the greatest inventions in history!

The invention of gunpowder is attributed to the Chinese as well. Around the year 250 AD, they already experimented with explosive powder mixtures of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur and developed blackpowder as explosive. They discovered that they can make an explosion when mixing and heating certain ores with fuel. In the 9thcentury, the Chinese invented a powder that also can be used for fireworks. They filled bamboo tubes with powder and let them explode in the air to get rid of evil spirits. They were later used for military purposes as well. This all happened a long time before in the 14th century, gunpowder and firearms were invented in Europe.

Magnetic compass

It was in the 6th century BC when the Chinese have discovered the importance of the magnet. In the 4th century BC, it was found that the magnet could be used for detecting the 4 directions. So, the magnetic compass was invented, named ‘Si’nan’, which means ‘directing the south’ in Chinese. However, it took several centuries until in the 13th century when the magnetic compass was introduced in Europe.


You could only guess what impact it would have had if these important Chinese inventions were not coined until many centuries later. Would navigator and explorer Marco Polo be driven across the ocean in the 13th century without a magnetic compass? This means recognizing that China, in terms of scientific progress, run ahead the world in many areas for thousands of years. Even if historical critics see the Confucianism as an obstacle to China’s progress from the middle age to the end of the 19th century. Because Confucius did not support these technical innovations. He sat down for humanity, justice, ethics, wisdom and quality. Who knows what achievements the world would have found even sooner without these limitations!

China’s steady transformation into an industrial nation is also evident with an annual double-digit growth in patent applications. In addition, the Chinese government encourages the research activities of Chinese companies with tax benefits. Today, China is the second largest economy in the world and still growing.

Autor: Daniele Bardaro