“The invention of the printing press was one of the most important events in human history”– Ha-Joon Chang
It’s possible we’re biased, but we can’t help but agree with Ha Joon Chang. It’s so easy to take simple things for granted: the miracle of electricity, the now-necessity of running water, the humble printing press.
But when you look at what the world would look like without these seemingly simple innovations, it’s clear how very necessary they are.
The invention of the printing press allowed for knowledge and information to be shared in ways that would have been simply impossible prior to its invention.
What was it like before the printing press? Who was the (unlucky) man, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented it? How did it change everything?
Let’s take a look:
Pre-Printing Press: Handwriting Reigns Supreme in Europe
“Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body”. –Tenth Century Prior
That quote comes from a Prior, one of many in the Middle Ages who had the not-so-fun task of copying manuscripts by hand. Although this often resulted in beautiful works, it was an extremely difficult and time-consuming task.
Often, this took place in monasteries, where monks were given the difficult job of hand-copying the entire Bible. These monks — some of whom were illiterate — often had to do this work in cramped quarters with dim light.
No talking was allowed, and if they found mistakes in the manuscript they were copying from, they weren’t allowed to correct them. This meant that most of these manuscripts — though beautifully designed and illuminated — had glaring errors.
These long-suffering monks had to work long hours every day with poor lighting, and it often took up to a year to finish one book. Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine waiting a whole year for any product — let alone a single book.
Woodblocks and Movable Type in China 400 Years Before Printing Press
Although it was common to hand write manuscripts in Europe, Eastern countries like Korea and China were way ahead of the game with printing. In fact, Chinese inventors developed woodblock and movable type printing prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The Diamond Sutra, dating from 868 AD, was printed in China using hand carved wooden blocks!
How did it work? Basically, these hand carved wooden blocks were used as stamps, inked, then transferred to paper.
And in the 11th century, movable type took it one step further — setting the stage for Gutenberg’s 15th century invention. Using oven-baked clay as his material, a man named Bi Sheng created individual characters on small pieces of clay. Once hardened, these characters could then be rearranged and transported as needed.
Though this was an ingenious discovery, it was still very time-consuming because the Chinese alphabet was pictographic as opposed to alphabet-based. Amazing, this discovery was made between 1041 and 1048 — hundreds of years before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Enter Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg was born in Germany in the late 1300s, into a world where the written word was either hand-copied or laboriously created with hand-carved blocks. Though not so much is known about his life, it’s clear that he was a crafty individual — he was into gem cutting, metalworking, goldsmithing, and general inventing.
By all accounts, Gutenberg suffered several setbacks over the course of his career. He was exiled from his hometown of Mainz, Germany, due to a guild dispute. After he moved to France, he got caught up in several lawsuits regarding his inventions.
In 1462, when he’d moved back to Mainz, a printing office where Gutenberg’s work was stored was burnt in a fire. He had to seek a pension due to poverty, and apparently became blind during the last few months of his life.
Somehow, out of the turmoil of exile, lawsuits, betrayal, and actual fire, Gutenberg was able to invent the printing press.
Let’s Talk About the Actual Printing Press
“He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.” –Thomas Carlyle
In between all his gem-cutting, goldsmith-ing, and drama, Johannes Gutenberg managed to create an incredible device. These things all came together:
- Technology revolutionized in China nearly 1,000 years prior.
- An inexpensive ink he invented out of linseed and soot.
- The technology of olive and grape presses used by farmers.
- Gutenberg’s knowledge of metal-working.
Instead of wood or clay-based models for the letters, Gutenberg used his metalworking skills to create individual letters from metal alloys. Then, these letters were set on a type tray and attached at the end of a metal shaft. This, then, could be easily moved around to create words.
Gutenberg’s true genius came from mechanizing the movable type process, so that a machine (instead of a human being) would transfer the letters and symbols to paper. Though this still required a human being’s attention, it was exponentially easier than the previous systems.
By using metal alloys, Gutenberg created pieces that were long-lasting and hardy. In addition, all the pieces of the printing press could be easily reproduced. And in terms of cost, the ink that he produced was way more affordable than previous inks.
Johannes introduced the The Gutenberg Bible to the world in 1445, and it sold immediately at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Hopefully, that triumph made up slightly for the exile, lawsuits, and eventual poverty).
The Printing Press & Beyond
After the Gutenberg Bible came out, printing press technology spread across Europe: from Germany, to France, to Spain, to Portugal, to England.
It wasn’t an instant hit with everyone. In fact, the Church threatened ex-communication to anyone who printed a manuscript without permission. Despite controversy, a half million books were already in circulation by 1500, thanks to Gutenberg’s invention.
The spread of books had some predictable results: literacy rates began to rise as books became more easily accessible to all. Because people could now access to books on science, history, and philosophy, it opened up the world of learning and accomplishment for many people. In fact, some historians attribute the invention of the printing press to sparking the Renaissance in Europe.
It’s considered by many to be one of the most important inventions in human history.
The printing press remained more or less the same until the 19th century, when things really started to pick up speed:
- 1800. The cast iron press invented by Earl Stanhope created clearer images due to increased power.
- 1816. George Clymer’s Columbian Press used weights and counterweights to further streamline the process.
- 1824. By adding gears and power, Boston’s Daniel Treadwell made the printing press four times faster
- 1844. Richard Hoe’s Rotary Press uses cylinders to print still fasting, contributing to the rise of major newspapers.
- 1865. The idea of a continuous roll of paper, instead of hand-fed pages, is introduced by William Bullock
- Late 1800’s. The linotype and minotype printers are born, which resemble typewriters still used to this day!
Incredible Impact on Printing & History
“Our printing press is the Internet. Our coffee houses are social networks.” — Heather Brooks
It’s difficult to envision a world without immediate access to the internet — let alone a world where you can’t get a book unless a monk works on it for a year (and even then, it would definitely be too pricey!)
Like the World Wide Web, the advent of printing with Gutenberg’s machine opened up a world of potential, discovery, and learning for so many individuals. It opened up mass communication between human beings — so that we could exchange ideas, communicate freely, and form and organize in communities.
Despite advances in digital technology, there’s still something special about a printed design on a card, a letter, or a banner. Even prior to Gutenber’s printing press, elements of design and communication have been celebrated for thousands of years— and will be for thousands to come.