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Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press: Social & Cultural Impact

Updated on July 17, 2017
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Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.

Gutenberg's Printing Press

Johannes Gutemberg's 1449 first movable type printing workshop.
Johannes Gutemberg's 1449 first movable type printing workshop. | Source

Portrait of Johannes Gutenberg

Goldsmith and Inventor of the Printing Press, Johannes Gutenberg.
Goldsmith and Inventor of the Printing Press, Johannes Gutenberg. | Source

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 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

A drawing of Gutenberg's finished printing press.
A drawing of Gutenberg's finished printing press. | Source

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

Gutenberg's Legacy

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
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
14lbs
 
Number of complete copies still in existence
21
 

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

A surviving copy of The Gutenberg Bible from 1455.
A surviving copy of The Gutenberg Bible from 1455. | Source

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

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      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!

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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. :)

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      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

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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. :)

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      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!

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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 :)

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      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)

    • profile image

      Brenda Durham 4 years ago

      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!

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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 :)

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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 :)

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      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?

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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 :)

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks so much for the blessing! Sharing your Hub!

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

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

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 4 years ago

      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 :)

    • profile image

      Ray Anderson 3 years ago

      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.

    • stuff4kids profile image
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      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      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

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

      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!

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 2 years ago

      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 :)

    • Paul Silverzweig profile image

      Paul Silverzweig 2 years ago from Portsmouth RI USA

      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..

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 2 years ago

      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. :)

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