The Gutenberg press and the profits of innovation

The development of the printing press was an extremely significant moment in history; by enabling the mass production of uniform printed matter, it revolutionised society as knowledge and ideas were spread wider and faster than ever before.  Of particular importance is the device invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 15th century Europe, as his combination of the use of moulded movable metal type, a press, and printing ink was a breakthrough in the process of mechanising printing. While the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press was a remarkable moment of progress for book-making in itself, the long-term consequences it has had for knowledge and culture are immeasurable, enabling the mass consumption of ideas on an unimaginable scale  and thus facilitating  a great number of intellectual movements that have been crucial to scientific and philosophical understanding throughout the past 500 years.


Printing Before Gutenberg

While Gutenberg’s press was the first instance of mechanised printing, printing techniques were already being developed in other parts of the world several centuries earlier. Movable type and paper, essential components of the printing process, were invented in China, and the oldest known printed text, a copy of The Diamond Sutra, also originates from China, from around 868AD. This was produced through the method of block printing, whereby hand-carved wooden panels were used to print text. Block printing was also in use in other parts of East Asia in the period, such as Japan and Korea.  Methods that would come to comprise part of Gutenberg’s printing machine were further developed in China around the turn of the 1st millennium AD, with moveable type, a technique that replaced printing blocks with reusable moveable letters, pioneered by Bi Sheng.  A couple of centuries later, the ‘world’s first mass-produced book’, a treatise on agriculture and farming practises called Nung Shu, was printed by magistrate Wang Chen in 1297, while the oldest known extant book printed from movable type was produced in Korea in 1377.


The Gutenberg Press

The so-called ‘Gutenberg Press’ was invented around 1436 by Johannes Gutenberg, a German craftsman and inventor. While he certainly wasn’t the first person to start to automate the printing process, as is seen by the variety of innovations that were developed centuries earlier in Asia, Gutenberg’s adaptation, which was modelled after the ancient Mediterranean wine-and-olive press, was particularly efficient, and is thus regarded by many historians as ‘the key to unlocking the modern age’. Indeed, the basic mechanism of Gutenberg’s press dominated the printing industry for over 300 years, printing at a consistent rate of 250 sheets per hour. Besides the considerable significance of his improvements to the printing process, Gutenberg is also famous for an edition of the Bible he printed in 1455: known as the Gutenberg Bible, it is the first major work printed in Europe with movable metal type and also the first complete extant book in the West.


The Legacy of the Gutenberg Press

By automating the printing process, Gutenberg caused a fundamental shift in the production and distribution of books; unlike copying by hand or woodblock printing, the press could produce books quickly, cheaply, and uniformly, and thus made it much easier to both distribute and access written material. This had a multitude of consequences, including an increase in literacy rates and a much greater spread and exchange of ideas, which enabled and empowered movements such as the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution. There were some negative effects from Gutenberg’s invention, most notably the fact that the mechanised press contributed to unemployment by rendering scribes and other artisans involved in book production redundant, foreshadowing the disruption caused by the widespread automation that would occur centuries later during the Industrial Revolution, but the long-term consequences of the printing press are overall undoubtedly positive, given the extraordinary possibilities it opened up for global culture and understanding. Thus, the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg was certainly a fundamentally important moment in history, marking a substantial milestone in the development of printing processes and the exchange of ideas across the world.


Featured Image: Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

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