Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press: Social & Cultural Impact
Gutenberg's Printing Press
Portrait of Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press
There are many events in human history that are of great importance for the way we live today. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the 'movable type' printing press is one of the most important.
It is possible that without it there would have been no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, no Technological Revolution and no modern, western Democracy. In other words - no modern world!
While primitive forms of printing had been invented a long time before in ancient China and good quality paper had been available for some time in Europe (modern America still hadn't been invented!) most books were still copied out by hand in what was a painstaking and time-consuming labor.
For this reason, very few books were made, and those that were produced were extremely valuable objects that belonged either to the church or other powerful institutions.
Most people couldn't read - what would have been the point of learning? - and knowledge was largely limited to what a person saw, heard and experienced in their own lifetime and in their own town or village.
Gutenberg's invention of the printing press meant that books could be produced in greater numbers and more quickly and cheaply than ever before. This led to a huge social and cultural revolution the repercussions of which are still seen and felt today. It was the internet of its day!
The Invention of the Printing Press
Nobody knows exactly what it was that inspired Gutenberg to make his first printing press. By profession he was a goldsmith.
He was very interested in all kinds of inventions and had a lively and enquiring mind. He was also quite wealthy and so had the resources available to realize many of his ideas.
According to legend the idea for the movable type printing press came to him 'like a ray of light' in the year 1439. However, legends do make such claims and usually arise in the absence of solid information.
It is more likely that he had been mulling over the problem for some time before the moment of hard-won inspiration struck!
The Gutenberg Press
Prototypes of the Gutenberg Printing Press
We do know that by 1440 he was busy working on several 'prototypes' of the printing press - which again suggests that the solution he came up with was the result of a lot of work and experimentation rather than a sudden flash of inspiration.
A 'prototype' is an experimental model or attempt at something before arriving at the finalized version.
At that time he was living in Strasbourg. There, in his workshop, he started using a mixture of older technologies, including something called 'the screw press' and a new idea of his own: molded type setting.
Molded type setting involved making a mold for each letter character which could be re-used. In this way he was able to produce a lot of individual letters which could be placed within a wooden frame to create the layout of the page to be printed.
This was a step in the right direction and while much faster than hand copying, it still took up a lot of time as each new set of pages had to be made up from scratch and inked by hand. Also, if the text was to be decorated or colored, then that still had to be done in the old way, painting onto the printed sheet by hand just as the illuminated manuscripts of the monastic scriptorium had been done.
The First Movable Type Printing Press
It was, in the end, his knowledge of working and casting in metal, which gave him the last refinement that he was looking for.
Gutenberg had the idea that a series of characters could be cast in brass. These characters would be durable and easy to set. They could be used again and again, being reconfigured to make endless different pages. He also developed the idea of inking them using a rolling device which meant that the page settings could be inked and ready within seconds.
This was the breakthrough he had been looking for. Suddenly, he could produce many copies of a book cheaply and quickly.
This invention also meant that he could print in color as the pages could be passed a second and third and fourth time through the press to be over-printed with the color settings.
Demonstration of the Gutenberg Printing Press
Unfortunately, it is not easy to work out which of the many surviving texts of the subsequent period were actually printed in Gutenberg's workshop. Unlike today there were no copyright laws.
Added to that is the fact that Gutenberg never added his own name or even the date on any of his printed works!
Scholars think that among his earliest productions were a German poetic work and a grammatical textbook for students.
But his most famous printing project he was to begin in 1452. It was what is now known as The Gutenberg Bible.
Johannes Gutenberg Documentary
Gutenberg Bible Facts and Figures
Number of sheets of paper used
Number of pages
Number of lines on a page
Number of pieces of type per page
Number of years to complete printing
Weight of each Bible
Number of complete copies still in existence
The Gutenberg Bible
The Gutenberg Bible was a tremendous undertaking.
The first edition was published in 1455 and had a print run of one hundred and eighty copies. That may not seem like much by today's standards but at the time it was a considerable run in such a short period.
The Bible had exactly forty-two lines on each page and must have been very difficult to read as there was no punctuation and no indentation of paragraphs!
He financed the project himself and despite its success, the costs of initially creating the press left him deeply in debt. Later he was granted a special pension by the Archbishop Von Nassau but he never made a great deal of money from his extraordinary invention.
But his design had made a huge impression and within a few short years, there were 'Gutenberg' printing presses being set up all over Europe.
The Gutenberg Bible
The Social and Cultural Impact of the Gutenberg Press
The impact of the Gutenberg printing press was immeasurable.
It caused nothing less than a dramatic social and cultural revolution. The sudden widespread dissemination of printed works - books, tracts, posters and papers - gave direct rise to the European Renaissance. The availability of the Bible to be read not only in Latin by priests but in the languages of the common people, led inevitably to the Protestant revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the development of Modern Science and Universal Education: in other words, everything that has led to human progress and the advancement of the modern world.
I'll finish with a quotation from Mark Twain, who wrote:
"What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage...for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored."
Find Out More About Gutenberg
I hope you have enjoyed finding out about Johannes Gutenberg and his important work as much as I have writing about it.
If you want to find out more about Johannes Gutenberg and his work on the invention of the moveable-type printing press, either for a school project or your own personal interest, I've put together here some of the best resources available, from which you can get excellent and reliable information to help you.
And don't forget that even though you are reading this on computer screen or mobile device, without Gutenberg's printing press, your ancestors may never have learned to read and the computer would most certainly never have been invented!
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn