A Brief Overview of the Printing Press History

history of the printing press

During the late 1400’s, the Renaissance had spread north into the regions that are now Germany, France, England, and Spain. During this migration, the movement took on different conditions as Italy promoted the monarchial state and lay piety. However, in Spain, France, and England, the nature of the culture leaned more toward democracy. This ultimately led to the preservation of apostolic purity in this region while Italy questioned the origins of Christianity.

After 1450, cases of plagues and famine declined, and this led to economic prosperity. This factor and the printing press allowed for further spread of the Renaissance. As a result, there was an influx in the institution of new schools and colleges primarily to accommodate the growing interest in young men wishing to offer their services in the church or civil service.

Around the same time, the Chinese paper money and playing cards made their way to western society. However, they were not in the form we think of today. They were made using wooden blocks in order to print large quantities identical in appearance. The blocks had characters and pictures carved into them, and ink was transferred from the block to the paper. While this produced the desired result of interchangeable copies, the process was quite time consuming.

As literacy began to grow among populations and the need for written records to facilitate the relationship between more modern governments and their people increased, it was clear that a more efficient printing system was necessary. The wooden block method was simply not meeting the need, especially considering the durability was not suitable as repeated use often led to splitting. It was also necessary to create a new block for every new impression that was needed.

Johannes Gutenberg, the son of a noble family of Mainz, Germany, was behind the scenes during this time working on printing with movable metal type. In his former work of stonecutting and goldsmithing, he discovered an alloy of lead, tin and antimony which casted well, was able to melt at a low temperature, and would prove durable in the press. This allowed for the reuse of separate pieces of type that could be arranged in any order the user wished.

The type was created by carving a mirror image of each letter on small blocks that would then be placed together to form words. Using this innovative system, it was possible to mass-produce books and other large bodies of text to provide to the public.

Enthusiastic with his discovery, Gutenberg embarked on a large scale project in 1452 using a loan of printing 200 copies of the two-volume Gutenberg Bible. The end result were beautifully-bound books that sold at the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair. While expensive to acquire (the average clerk had to spend three year’s worth of pay), this proved to be the first representation of the possibilities of the printing press.

News of Gutenberg’s method spread quickly despite his efforts to keep it a secret. Around 2,500 cities had established printing presses by the late 1400’s. Some of the key users of the press were:

German masters
Venetian printer Aldus Manutius

Aside from the fact that it was now easier to manufacture the written word, there were other positive effects resulting from the invention of the printing press. For starters, since it took far less time to produce, books and other printed materials could be sold at a far lower price. Furthermore, libraries were able to better stock their shelves for people eager to acquire knowledge on a more attainable budget. Perhaps most importantly, the printed word allowed for the sharing of ideas and knowledge, putting more power into the hands of the people.

The private lives of people, nobles and layman alike, were greatly improved as books on all subjects could be acquired more easily. There was also a decreased chance of text becoming corrupted due to handwritten errors. This resulted in a higher reliability in both critical scholarship and science. While it may be easy to overlook such a seemingly simplistic invention by today’s standards, we wouldn’t enjoy the technology currently available had it not first been for this truly magnificent tool.