In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 6. The printing press

How a German goldsmith revolutionised the way we share ideas

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on the printing press:

 

The printing press in 60 seconds

Until the mid-15th century, all manuscripts had to be written out by hand, and the only way to make additional copies was to painstakingly copy out the original text - a time-consuming task confined largely to monasteries.

Block printing, in which ink is applied to carved woodcuts and printed onto paper or cloth, arrived in Europe from China in the 1200s. This technique quickly became a popular way to reproduce pictures and short texts, but was not efficient for lengthier works.

By the mid-1400s,”several print masters were on the verge of perfecting the techniques of printing with movable metal type”, writes American historian Steven Kreis.

These pioneers included German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, who developed a press that would eventually see him recognised as the father of modern-day printing.

Unlike block printing, Gutenberg’s press featured a movable “key” for each individual letter and symbol. “Since letters could be arranged into any format, an infinite variety of texts could be printed by reusing and resetting the type,” says Kreis.

However, “what really set Gutenberg apart from his predecessors in Asia was his development of a press that mechanised the transfer of ink from movable type to paper”, allowing rapid and cheap mass production of printed texts for the first time ever, says Live Science.

How did it develop?

The first complete book to emerge from Gutenberg’s press was the Bible, the first copies of which appeared in 1455, followed by an illustrated Psalm book two years later.

“In spite of Gutenberg’s efforts to keep his technique a secret, the printing press spread rapidly,” writes Kreis. “Before 1500, some 2,500 European cities had acquired presses.”

Printing technology was improved and refined over the next few centuries, but the process remained largely the same as in the days of Gutenberg until 1814, when the invention of the mechanised cylinder press did away with the need for manual “press” of each sheet.

Developed by two Germans, Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer, and “first installed at The Times, this steam-driven machine romped along at 1,100 [pages per hour], threatening the jobs of unsuspecting pressmen and astonishing the news-reading public”, says PrintWeek.

Half a century later, William Bullock developed the roll-fed rotary press, which mechanised the process of feeding the press with paper and enabled printers to produce 12,000 up to newspapers per hour. Further innovations would follow in the decades ahead, but by the middle of the 19th century, printing was possible on a truly industrial scale.

How did it change the world?

“Few single inventions have had such far-reaching consequences” as the printing press, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Several scholars have compared the cultural impact to that brought about by the internet.

In the decades following its invention, “the immediate effect of the printing press was to multiply the output and cut the costs of books”, says Kreis. This, in turn, expanded the reach of literature beyond monasteries and into the lives of laypeople.

“By 1500, almost 40,000 recorded editions of books had been printed in 14 European countries,” says the encyclopedia.

Poems, plays, travelogues, almanacs, philosophical works and political tracts were soon available across Europe and beyond, disseminating information and ideas that would shape the world.

The major intellectual movements that swept through Europe in the early modern era - the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, to name a few - would almost certainly have been impossible without the widespread circulation of the written word.

Even from the earliest days, history’s influential thinkers understood the revolutionary potential of the printing press.

As Live Science notes, when Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, it was certainly a dramatic gesture - but he made sure he “had multiple copies made to hand out elsewhere”.

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