Who Invented That? The Printing Press

Imagine you invented something amazing. Does this mean you’ll be famous for your invention a hundred years from now?

The inventors we remember (and revere) introduced technologies that forever changed the course of human history.  They invented things like the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light bulb. We already know their names – Johannes Gutenberg, Samuel F.B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Alva Edison. Today, we’ll talk about the printing press.

Gutenberg’s printing press had a seismic impact on Europe when it appeared around 1440 AD. This invention made affordable copies of books available to almost anyone. The printing press encouraged more people to learn to read. Literacy rates soared. The printing press allowed Western scientists to have personal copies of classic texts. Now these scholars could compare books by different authors or different translations of the same book. What they discovered was that many of the alleged “facts” in science books contradicted one another. Scientists would later sort out the scientific facts from false beliefs using the “scientific method” they invented during the Scientific Revolution.

Of course, printing was not new to the world. One source tells us that the “recorded history of block printed fabrics dates back to the Indus Valley [located in modern-day Pakistan and India] civilization, around 3500 to 1300 BC.” In the first millennium, the Chinese inventing printing on paper using wooden blocks, first printing on scrolls and later on sheets.

By around 1000 AD, The Chinese had invented moveable-type printing. This process mounted individual symbols – carved on separate blocks – into an iron frame to form the text. At first, the blocks were clay; later, they were wooden. Over time, the Chinese created more efficient ways to set up the symbols in the frame. Their increasingly refined printing techniques allowed them to publish the world’s first mass-produced book, Nung shu, or Book of Agriculture. First appearing in 1297, this book made its way to the European continent.

What was left for Gutenberg to do? Gutenberg introduced the first moveable-type printing press in Europe. He put individual letters on metal dies which fit together seamlessly when mounted into a frame. Gutenberg also designed a type of ink that adhered to metal and devised a way to use a winepress to flatten paper.

Paper was still kind of unusual in Europe in Gutenberg’s time. Invented in China around 200 BC, paper had slowly migrated along the Silk Road only as far as Turkey by the 8th century AD. Spanish crusaders brought it the rest of the way to Europe around 1150 AD, but it was slow to catch on.  Three hundred years later, Gutenberg’s printing press created a demand for paper that drove European production to unprecedented levels across the continent.

Gutenberg printed many things, like calendars and pamphlets, but only one book, the Gutenberg Bible. Each of the 1,300 pages of this Bible contained 42 lines of Gothic-typed text in double columns. Of the estimated 180 copies of the book printed, 25 complete copies still exist, many in the United States where you can view them.

The scientist Isaac Newton once said: “ If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton was able to make great discoveries because of his knowledge of other scientists’ work. In the same way, Johannes Gutenberg stood on the shoulders of those who invented things like printing, paper, and winepresses.

We remember Gutenberg today because his invention – the European moveable typeset printing press for paper – spawned a revolution that changed the lives of humans forever.