The Invention of Printing: Spread the Word!


Throughout history, people have invented many machines that forever changed the world; the Gutenberg Printing Press is one of these revolutionary machines. A major element of the Renaissance, it led to the establishment of a community of scientists, putting an end to the Dark Ages, and eventually leading to the Industrial Revolution.

To understand the importance of the printing press, it is necessary to understand that, before its invention, virtually every book and every document was a manuscript. Written by hand, the production of even a single page was an arduous and time-consuming task. Books were expensive, and only very popular texts of universal appeal were likely to be reproduced.

Later, books were produced by and for the Church through the process of wood engraving. This required the craftsman to cut away the background, leaving the area to be printed in high-relief. This process applied to both text and illustrations, and was extremely time-consuming. When a page was complete, often comprising a number of blocks joined together, it would be inked and a sheet of paper was then pressed over it for an imprint. The susceptibility of wood to the elements gave such blocks a limited lifespan.

In 1440, German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press process that, with refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means of printing until the late 20th century. The inventor's method of printing from movable type, including the use of metal molds and alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks, allowed for the first time the mass production of printed books.

The genius of Gutenberg's invention was to split the text into its individual components, such as lower and upper case letters, punctuation marks and abbreviations, drawing on the traditions of medieval scribes. These individual items were then cast in quantity as mirror images and assembled to form words, lines and pages.

Developed from the technology of the screw-type wine presses of the Rhine Valley, the Gutenberg Printing Press was a screw hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters, held within a wooden form; the form was then pressed against a sheet of paper. During the centuries, many newer printing technologies were developed based on Gutenberg's printing machine, such as offset printing.

Gutenberg’s Printing Press is also credited for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts; because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful. It was suddenly important who said or wrote what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was.

The printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages; hence, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common. The process of reading also changed, gradually changing from oral readings to silent, private reading. This gradually raised the literacy level as well, revolutionizing education. Also, although early texts were printed in Latin, books were soon produced in common European vernacular, leading to the decline of the Latin language.

Eisenstein claims another way in which printing affected scientific thought was through the “process of feedback”. Before printing, there was no way to make observations public. After printing, observations were published and the author received feedback, as well as the scientific community. Thus, information was shared and developed to the advancement of all.

It is clear that the printing press certainly initiated an information revolution on par with the Internet today.



*Published in the PSC Newsletter, Winter 2011 Issue.

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