Gutenberg and the History of Printing
Books were expensive and rare in the Middle Ages. Each copy of a book was usually handwritten and copied page by page. In the mid-1400s, a German craftsman named Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of handling this process with a machine – the first printing press.
The design of Gutenberg’s printing press involved an arrangement to apply downward pressure on paper that was laid over the type mounted on a flat wooden platen. These wooden printing presses could print up to 250 sheets per hour.
Using ink and a moveable type, this machine could print text and images onto paper or other mediums. Moveable-type print and paper were invented in China. The oldest known book in print from a movable type was created in Korea in the 14th century. Printing was mechanised in Europe in the 15th century.
In 1455, Gutenberg used his press to print a copy of the Bible. This Bible was the first complete book printed in the West. It was also one of the earliest books to be printed using moving print. The wooden press used by Gutenberg was in use for over 300 years. In 1377, Jikji, a textbook for Buddhist clergy, was hand-printed on a moving print in Korea.
More than 600 years before the Gutenberg press, Chinese monks had printed ink on paper using block printing. It was a simple process wherein carved wooden blocks were used to press the ink on sheets of paper.
Printing presses made it possible to produce books quickly and accurately in a cost-efficient manner. Prior to this, books were primarily for the upper classes but with the advent of printing presses, books became cheaper and more readily available to the middle class. This led to an improvement in public literacy and education. The development of the printing press has been recognised as a catalyst which ushered in modernity, by enabling the dissemination of information to all levels of society.
The printing press was one of the most important inventions of all time. Its development destroyed the hegemonic control of Europe and changed the course of history forever. It was a great improvement over previous methods, such as transcribing by hand with a pen and ink, or by brushing repeatedly.
In the 11th century, Chinese farmer Bi (Pi) Sheng developed an early form of the moving type. The Chinese were able to print Buddhist and Taoist texts quickly and in large quantities. This helped spread Buddhism throughout the region.
Were it not for Shen Kuo, a contemporary scholar and scientist, we would not have known about Sheng. In his book Dream Pool Essays, Shen Kuo wrote about Sheng’s moving print and explained that the movable print was made of reinforced clay. Kuo tells his readers that the ink used for this was made from a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ash. He also explained how this method proved to be a fast and efficient way to print documents. Despite this progress, it took several centuries for it to be widely accepted throughout China.
What set the Gutenberg press apart from its predecessors was the combination of mechanisation to transfer ink from a moving type to a paper.
Regardless of the progress of the development of printing press in China, printing press did not flourish there as rapidly as it did in Europe.
It should be noted that relatively primitive forms of printing press existed in Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It was similar to Chinese woodblock printing, also known as xylography.
However, a German goldsmith and craftsman from Strasbourg was going to change the world. He initially experimented with existing xylographic methods to come up with an idea to make the process more efficient.
What set the Gutenberg press apart from its predecessors was the combination of mechanisation to transfer ink from a moving type to a paper. He adopted the screw mechanism from wine presses, papermakers’ presses, and linen presses, and developed a system that was perfectly suited for printing. He was able to establish the earliest form of print-text production that allowed for mass production of books at a much lower cost than earlier methods.
No one knows exactly what his motives were behind developing the printing press. The first book he printed is now known as the Gutenberg Bible. It was believed that over 200 copies were printed, but only 22 copies survived to modern times.
In fact, the Gutenberg Bible became so popular that many sold out long before they were printed.
The editions of the Bible that were circulated in the Rhine region of Germany between the 14th and 15th centuries were based on the contents of Gutenberg’s Bible. Gutenberg’s edition became the original standard edition of the Bible and formed the template for all future Bible texts.
The printing press eventually led to some major reforms across the continent. The rapid production and easy dissemination of standard texts provided thinkers with a way to mass-produce texts and propagate them with relative ease.
It was no coincidence that it was a time of great cultural and religious change across Europe. These would eventually change the course of Europe’s history and lead to the Protestant Reformation.
Earlier, there was no way for intellectual and religious leaders to spread their teachings beyond a limited congregation. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement, quickly took advantage of Gutenberg’s press.
The printing press laid the foundation for scientific research and publication which then gave birth to the Renaissance movement.
According to the observations made by the British Library, the growth of the printing press meant “more access to information, more dissent, more informed discussion and more widespread criticism of authorities.”
According to Mark U Edwards, the printing press provided a way to “shape and lead the mass movement in ideas.” Had it not been for the printing press, it is doubtful if the Reformation would have ever taken place.
Printing presses significantly reduced the cost of book production. Easy access to books dramatically increased the literacy rate of European citizens.
The printing press laid the foundation for scientific research and publication which then gave birth to the Renaissance movement. Its importance to the history and development of Europe and the world cannot be underestimated.
The printing press broke the centralised control and censorship of published materials, thereby allowing new ideas to spread like wildfire in a way like never before. It also led to the development of new occupations and trades in proofreading and graphic design.
Without Gutenberg and his printing press, there is no doubt that the modern world would have been a completely different place.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How do you describe the contributions of Johannes Gutenberg in the growth and popularisation of the printing press?
How do you think the printing press contributed to the spread of radical new ideas?
What do you think of the statement "without Gutenberg's printing press the modern world would have been a completely different place”?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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