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Johannes Gutenberg: Cultural Impact of the Printing Press

Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in various contexts.

Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press allowed the Bible to be reproduced relatively cheaply, thus improving literacy rates throughout the West.

Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press allowed the Bible to be reproduced relatively cheaply, thus improving literacy rates throughout the West.

Whatever the world is, today, good and bad together, that is what Gutenberg's invention has made it: for from that source it has all come.

— Mark Twain

Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press

Many events in human history are important to the way we live today. But few achievements are more impactful than Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press in the 1450s.

In Europe at the time, most books were still copied by hand, which was painstaking and time-consuming. If you wanted to purchase a Bible, it would've been a two-year process.

Needless to say, few books were made, and those that were produced belonged to the Church or other powerful institutions. Thus, most people couldn't read. In fact, when Gutenberg invented the printing press the vast majority of European adults were illiterate.

Sparked a Literacy Revolution

Gutenberg's movable type printing press allowed books to be produced in greater numbers, more quickly, and more cheaply than ever before. This led to a steady rise in literacy rates, which begat a massive social and cultural revolution, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

It's entirely possible that without his famous Bible there would have been no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, no Technological Revolution, and no modern, western Democracy. It was the internet of its day!

Why Gutenberg?

Nobody knows exactly what it was that inspired Gutenberg to make his first movable type printing press. By profession he was a goldsmith, but he was interested in all kinds of inventions and had a lively and inquiring mind. He was also quite wealthy, so had resources available to realize many of his ideas.

1439: “A Ray of Light”

According to legend, the idea for the movable type printing press came to him "like a ray of light" in the year 1439. It’s a fantastic story, but it’s more likely that he had been mulling over the problem for some time before the moment of hard-won inspiration struck!

We do know that by 1440 he was busy working on several "prototypes" of the movable type printing press—which again suggests his solution was the result of a lot of work and experimentation, rather than a sudden flash of inspiration.

At the time he was living in Strasbourg, France. 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: the adjustable mold (or hand mould).

The Adjustable Mold

The adjustable mold allowed a mold for each letter character to 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.

17th century Gutenberg-type printing press

17th century Gutenberg-type printing press

Oil-Based Inks

Gutenberg’s real innovation may not have been the printing press itself. He also developed the idea of inking pages using a rolling device, which meant that the page settings could be inked and ready within seconds.

Beyond the mechanics, though, was the ink itself. According to a 1987 New York Times article [https://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/12/science/a-beam-of-protons-illuminates-gutenberg-s-genius.html], scientists in the mid-1980s used a particle accelerator to examine various Gutenberg’s documents and what they found surprised them.

Directing the cyclotron analyses of old documents is Thomas A. Cahill, head of the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at Davis. ''One of the most remarkable things we discovered in our five-year study,'' Dr. Cahill said in an interview, ''was that Gutenberg's genius extended to the formulation of inks as well as the development of movable type.

Other printers of the late 15th century and printers even today tend to use inks based on oils and carbon black. But for Gutenberg, nothing but the best would do.

We found within a few seconds of our first analysis of his ink that it is unusually rich in compounds of lead and copper. Lead and copper were Gutenberg's signature, and their presence in the ink on a document is as convincing a sign of his agency as his own hand would be.''

The Invention of Mass Media

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.

Thus, Gutenberg's inks are why the printing in his books remains as fresh, glossy and black as it was when it came off his press. All you have to do is look at one of the 21 surviving copies of his Bible to confirm this.

Today, there are only 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the world. This one is displayed at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Today, there are only 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the world. This one is displayed at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

The Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible was a tremendous undertaking. The first edition was published in 1455 and had a print run of 180 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 two columns with exactly 42 lines on each page, hence its nickname, The 42-Line Bible. It must have been very difficult to read as there was no punctuation and no indentation of paragraphs!

The 42-Line Bible

Gutenberg financed the project himself, but 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 Adolph II of Nassau, but he never made a great deal of money from his extraordinary invention.

But his design made a huge impression and within a few short years, there were "Gutenberg" printing presses set up all over Europe.

Number of sheets of paper used

50,000

Number of pages

1286

Number of lines on a page

42

Number of pieces of type per page

2,500

Number of years to complete printing

3

Weight of each Bible

14 pounds

Number of complete copies still in existence

21

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.

While Gutenberg's famous Bible was printed in Latin, his invention of movable type press meant that Protestant tracts, including the arguments between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church leading to the Reformation, could be widely disseminated in the languages of the common people.

First Information Revolution

Gutenberg's invention led to the Protestant Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the development of modern science and universal education. Few inventions have had a comparable effect on human progress and advancement of the modern world.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to work out which of the many surviving texts of the subsequent period were actually printed in Gutenberg's workshop. Scholars think that among his earliest productions were a German poetic work and a grammatical textbook for students.

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!

Movable Metal Type in Asia

It’s important to note that for all of his innovative problem solving, Johannes Gutenberg was also extremely lucky. Jikji was a Korean Buddhist anthology printed with movable metal type 78 years prior to Gutenberg!

And it is merely the oldest surviving document using this technology. The first books printed in metallic typeset were published in Korea in 1236 during the Goryeo Dynasty.

Chinese Language Too Complex

Gutenberg was a scientific genius, but he also had the luxury of working with the simple Latin alphabet. Fewer characters and letters to reproduce kept costs down, which is the cornerstone of mass production.

By contrast, the number of Chinese characters in the complex Chinese language made mass production of Jikji impractical. This was a crucial difference

Gutenberg Resources

  1. Gutenberg Museum in Germany

    If you want to find out more about Johannes Gutenberg and his work on the invention of the movable type printing press, either for a school project or your own personal interest, you should visit the website of the Gutenberg Museum in Germany, which is available in English and has links to the best resources available.

  2. The Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas-Austin

    See the 500-year-old book that shaped history. Acquired in 1978, this Gutenberg Bible is always on view and can be accessed in its entirety in their digital archive.

  3. From Jikji to Gutenberg

    A collaborative research project involving over 30 scholars living in 13 different time zones who will investigate the technological evidence related from the invention of book printing.

  4. A Beam of Protons Illumintates Gutenberg's Genius

    "The cyclotron accelerates a narrow beam of protons that pierces a sample, and protons collide with some of the atoms in the sample along the way. When this happens the atoms emit X-rays, whose varying energies match the specific types of atoms from they were emitted. A detector measures these energies, and with this data a computer can determine the types and quantities of the elements present in the substance being studied."

  5. Bring Jikji to the world

    Jikji preceded the Gutenberg Bible by 78 years and Goryeo had a close relationship with the Mongol Empire to the extent that it had an empress from Goryeo. It is possible that Goryeo’s movable metal type technology was spread to Europe through the Mongol Empire.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: In what continent was the printing press made?

Answer: The European continent. It was made in Germany.

© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn

If you'd like to comment, I'd love to hear from you!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on August 01, 2020:

Hello Kihun,

Thank you for reading my article and for your kind words. I'm fascinated by the idea that the Koreans developed a moveable type printing press 80 years before Gutenberg. It seems entirely plausible.

Printing presses were invented long before Gutenberg, but I was not aware that his invention of the "moveable type" press wasn't new. I would be very happy to put the record straight if you would be kind enough to leave me a few links to relevant research I could follow up on.

Once again, thanks for your interestoing comment.

KSong on July 30, 2020:

Hello, Ms. Littlejohn. I'm Kihun Song, a Korean high schooler who is interested in both Korean and World History. I really enjoyed your article. I guess your article somehow helped me understand more about the Gutenberg Printing Press and its widespread effect on European literacy. However, I found a bit controversial statement from your article that Gutenberg Printing Press was perhaps the first movable type of Printing Press... According to my knowledge, Koreans have first invented a movable type of Printing Press called Jikji about 80 years before the Gutenberg one was introduced to the world. So.. would you please reconsider that statement? And I just want you to know that I'm not being hostile to you randomly (I'm sorry about that). As I'm working as a member of VANK, I just have this hope that right information about Korean history and culture can be spread. Please reply me back and tell me if I misunderstood your article or your contents. Thank you!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on May 15, 2019:

You're welcome.

LUCIIIIIIAAAA on May 15, 2019:

Thank you for this. It is amazing. Changed my life for the better.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 29, 2018:

Hi Richard,

Thanks for a valuable and interesting contribution!

It's true that the focus of this article is molded by its primary readership, which is European and North American. With the limited space available in an article, selecting information is a necessary part of the editing process.

It's unlikely that Gutenberg had any knowledge of what was taking place in Asia at the time, although not impossible. History is littered with examples of unconnected persons discovering or inventing the same thing. Wallace and Darwin both coming up with a theory of natural selection almost contemporaneously is a famous example which springs to mind.

However, I'm glad you've redressed the balance.

And for any reader who may be interested, a Google search for "Jikji printed in Cheongju, Korea in 1377" turns up fascinating results about the famous Buddhist text and the technology used to print it.

Thank you once again for a great contribution!

Richard Penningto on October 29, 2018:

Well, you need to acknowledge what the Chinese and Koreans did long before Johnny G. They were using movable porcelain type and movable metal type, and that is an early form of the printing press. Most scholars now agree that the printing press came from the Far East. Gutenberg has been praised much too highly. Jikji, you know, was printed in Cheongju, Korea in 1377. Gutenberg may have developed his version of the printing press independently or--more likely--he had some clue of what the Chinese and Koreans had done. Write about this stuff!!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on December 07, 2017:

Hi Ayera03!

You're very welcome. I'm glad you found it helpful and interesting learning about the "Wild West" and cowboys - and cowgirls!

Ayera03 on December 06, 2017:

Hey thank you so much, this helped me a lot and it's amazing.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 27, 2017:

Hi Matt,

You're welcome. I'm glad the article helped. Good luck with your paper!

Matt Bozdech on October 27, 2017:

Thank you so much for this! I'm writing a paper on the press and Gutenberg and this was extremely helpful!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 04, 2017:

Hi Student,

Thanks for your contribution. You're right, of course, that the early city state democracies originated in ancient Greece. Indeed, "demos" signifies both "village/town/city" and "people" in the sense of the people who live there.

Back then, the democratic structure and process was very different than that which we enjoy in the modern west. I had in mind modern, western democracy, whose process relies on the wide dissemination of information among a broad population, not just an elite class (remember that slaves and women couldn't vote in the relatively tiny "democracies" of a few hundred to a few thousand people).

However, your point is astute and correct, and I have changed the wording of this article slightly to reflect that.

Thank you!

:)

Student on September 04, 2017:

Democracy was concieved around 500 BCE by the ancient Greeks, so your claim that "It is possible that without it there would have been no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, no Technological Revolution and no Democracy." is partially false.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on August 15, 2014:

Hi Paul!

Thanks so much for your contribution. Yes, I agree with that completely.

I think that the invention of the printing press is probably the historical keystone upon which future democracy, education, science and so on were all built.

Bless. :)

Paul Silverzweig from Tiverton RI USA on August 14, 2014:

The printing press altered the nature of the way we think, speak, and behave... huge changes come from it, and we still experience them today... nice..

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on August 10, 2014:

Hi ajwrites57!

Nice to see you again - you're quite the regular here now!

I agree with you that the availability of written materials in your own native language was one of the most important impacts of the printing press.

Particularly the Bible - for the first time people could read it for themselves and make their own critiques of its content rather than having everything mediated by priests.

I suspect that without Gutenberg there would have been no Reformation, still less a move towards any kind of rational and secular society.

So yes, a very good thing!

Bless :)

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on August 08, 2014:

stuff4kids came across your Hub again, didn't remember reading but enjoyed it again. I think the availability of printing in one's language is the single greatest impact of the printing press. Thanks again!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 28, 2014:

Hi Ray,

Thank you so much for that great contribution to this article.

That is quite a treasure your brother brought back for you, even if it is a facsimile. The fact that it was actually printed on a press from Gutenberg's workshop is nothing less than magical!

Once again, thanks for reading this and taking the time to comment. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

Bless. :D

Ray Anderson on March 27, 2014:

My younger brother printed me a page of the Gutenberg Bible at the same (or similar) press in Mainz that was shown in the video. It was cool to view the video of a page being printed in the Gutenberg Museum while in my left hand here in the U.S.A. I held the copy that my brother brought back to me from Germany several years ago, which was similar to a page of a Gutenberg Bible that would probably bring more than $5.3 million dollars today if it were not a facsimile.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 19, 2013:

Hi dahoglund!

Yes, people do often forget the importance of knowing the origins of things - knowing the past history to understand the present, don't they?

Thanks for you comment. Bless you :)

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on April 19, 2013:

Your hub is a nice summary of the beginnings of modern printing. People forget that whatever we have started sometime in the past. sharing.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 19, 2013:

ajwrites57, you're very welcome - Thank you! :)

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on April 18, 2013:

Thanks so much for the blessing! Sharing your Hub!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 18, 2013:

Hi ajwrites57!

Thanks for that - I have no idea what he would think about word-processing and copy and paste but I'm sure, after he'd pulled his hair out, he'd be most impressed!

Bless you :)

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on April 18, 2013:

stuff4kids thank God for Mr Gutenberg and thank you for writing an amazing Hub. I wonder what he would think about word-processing and copy and paste?

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 11, 2013:

Hi Brenda, thanks for commenting!

Sorry about the choppy video but it is the best information in a video I could get. Yes, Gutenberg's press would be mighty slow compared to any method that was a later improvement but in its day it was a real leap forward. Great to have the insight of someone who has experience in printing, too!

Bless you :)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 11, 2013:

Hi Dolores!

Thanks for your comment. I love books, too - good ol' Gutenberg. Sorry about the pin-stripes guy - not much I can do about that now!

So happy you enjoyed this. Bless you :)

Brenda Durham on April 11, 2013:

Interesting informative hub, thank you "stuff4kids".

The video was kinda choppy, but I got a view of the printing of that one page; neat! I worked at a print shop years ago, and sometimes printed on an old Heidelberg press (I hope I spelled that right....it's been a while...), and it was pretty slow; but the Gutenberg must've been really slow comparably; but definitely innovative; and you're right----we probably have Gutenberg to thank for us right now being able to type these very words online!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 11, 2013:

Wonderful! I can't imagine a world without books available for everyone! I wish that guy in the pin stripes would have moved a bit to the right in the video. (Shared and voted up)

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on April 08, 2013:

Hi RonElFran!

Yes, there's no doubt to my mind that the impact of his invention was completely revolutionary and forged the future of modernity as we know it today.

Thank you so much for reading this and I am really happy that you found it interesting and informative.

Bless you :)

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 07, 2013:

I think you are right that Gutenberg's invention has essentially shaped the modern world. It's hard to imagine what the world would be like without it. Yet, most of us don't think a lot about Gutenberg, or give him credit for being the world-changer he was. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 12, 2013:

Ji pstraubie48!

How lovely that you enjoyed this hub. I do think history is very interesting and it is so important to encourage a love of history in our young folk. I always told mine that it is important to know how we got here to know where we should go next. It always fascinates me, too, how there are these amazing individual people who stand out because of their genius, determination and sometimes just good luck! I find it very inspiring.

Thank you for commenting and thank you for the lovely angels! Bless you. :)

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 11, 2013:

Well done. I have had a renewed interest in all things historical so I found this particularly riveting. Thank you to Gutenberg for being ahead of his time...

Sending Angels to you this evening. :) ps

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on March 10, 2013:

Thanks billybuc!

I love history and enjoyed researching this even if it is a very well known story. Somehow, even old history is always new if it inspires you and helps you better understand the present.

Thanks for reading it and commenting. Bless you. :)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2013:

A bit of a revolutionary, wasn't he? The name Gutenberg sticks in our brains just like the year 1066....there is some history that will never be forgotten.

Thanks for a little history reminder. Well done!