The printing press is one of the most important inventions in human history. It’s difficult to tell this in the digital era, but the printing press made the quick and ubiquitous diffusion of information possible, across great distances.
Europe during this time had a manuscript culture. Resources such as: newspapers, manuals, scientific theory, art and literature, were incredibly scarce. Before printing, one had to listen to the town crier to get the latest events (± 6 months old), visit great libraries in cities thousands of kilometres away to learn new methods and even literacy itself was considered an unnecessary luxury, practiced mainly by academics.
The printing press, and more specifically the Gutenberg printing press, ushered in the Age of Enlightenment- an era of immense scientific and philosophical infrastructure reform- and spread the effects of the Renaissance, which built the technological society we know today.
Early Printing Technology
Unlike inventions like electricity or penicillin, the printing press was not immediately revolutionary. It was invented in 220 CE in China, centuries before it could actually change society. This was mainly due to how expensive it was to construct, the level of automation and how hard it was to change the printing template.
Printing was invented before paper actually, used in the Han Dynasty to print images onto fine silk cloths. This was called woodblock printing, and continued to be used in Europe and India until the 11th century. The woodblock print face would be carved either by the letter by the passage. By the letter, it involved almost more labour than writing it out, so it was favoured more for its precision, and by the passage, it had almost no versatility.
The Invention of Moveable Type
It should be noted that China continued to be the main innovator of printing and ink technology, and even invented moveable type in 1040 , almost 400 years before the Gutenberg press. However, the massive Chinese character set- about 4000 (the minimum needed to communicate effectively) compared to our 255 – hindered the spread of the technology. China’s general culture of isolationism stopped the technology from spreading to Europe. This was ironically, one of the problems the moveable type press solved
The Gutenberg press was invented in Mainz, Germany in 1440, which changed modern printing in Europe. This press was distinct in that:
* It had letter moulds that facilitated the rapid production of lead alloy characters.
* Although manually operated, a single press could print about 3 600 pages per day.
* It used an oil-based printing ink, which spread much further and dried slower.
* The letterpunches could be easily moved and replaced along a set of matrices.
* The metal alloy made the letters much more durable
* The machine itself was relatively light and transportable, for its time.
One of its first applications was spreading the book of the Christian Bible, often called the Gutenberg Bible. However it also sparked a rapid diffusion of information across Europe called the Printing Revolution.
What the Printing Revolution Did
By 1500, the technology was being used by 270 cities across Europe, and would go onto produce over 200 million copies in that century. These prints were the effective equivalent to what the internet is to us today. They democratised knowledge, allowing anyone to contribute to science or society’s narrative, which loosened the strict class hierarchy. They inspired a scientific revolution, which saw the invention of concepts like authorship monetary value and intellectual property, allowing for modern entertainment and academia.
In short though, they changed how we learn and exchange information. It meant that new doctors could be trained anywhere, that important recipes- like the one for cement or medicines- could be available to anyone, and that any development in any part of the world, could now affect the area outside of it. Essentially, it made knowledge itself possible.