On the left, a stack of very old books, viewed from the leaves not spine. On the right, a black background.

Thanks Johannes! 4 great things the Gutenberg printing press gave the modern world

No matter how much we value our independent thinking, we are – whether we like it or not – often at the behest of constant and multiple tides of influence. It’s just the way we live. Our thoughts, opinions and the way we go about our lives are shaped and determined by the information we receive from others. Friends and family, what we hear on the news, what we read on social media or ideas gleaned from books and magazines – the circles of influence within which we sit are wide and abundant. But it wasn’t always this way.

In a time before media our ‘inputs’, for want of a better description, were far fewer, and limited to word of mouth. Songs and folktales were memorised to be shared in the great oral tradition and gossip and rumour was rife. News arrived through merchants and sailors, who moved between countries and towns, sharing what they had learned on their travels. Propaganda was strategically propagated by churches and rulers either for financial benefit or to subdue the populous. The written word was for the few, not the many. But one invention changed everything. Gutenberg’s printing press was not the first time text had been printed to a surface. In truth, no one really knows exactly who invented the technique, but what we do know is that the Gutenberg press was the first to be used commercially in Europe.

It was initially used to print pamphlets and other small items, but in 1452 Gutenberg triumphantly printed 180 bibles of 1300 pages each. From this important milestone, printing spread in the same way that everything else did at that time – people who had worked with Gutenberg went into the trade and taught others – so very quickly presses appeared in France, Italy, Spain and England. By 1500, records show that almost 40,000 books had been printed in 14 European countries. This ability to reproduce and disseminate information shook the establishment and had profound implications that we can still feel today.

A digital image of a brown wooden printing press. On the right is the output space, where ink and metal type are ‘pressed’ onto the surface of the paper.
A 3D rendering of the Gutenberg printing press. Type was arranged over a flat wooden plate and ink was applied. A sheet of paper was laid on top. An upper plate is brought down to meet the lower plate, pressing the paper and type together and creating the image on paper.
A black and white engraving of Johannes Gutenberg in which he is depicted with a long beard and what appears to be a high, fur-trimmed hat and matching high-necked jacket. He holds what appears to be a lettered stamp in his left hand.
A copperplate engraving of Johannes Gutenberg, scanned from Michael Schönitzer’s 1936 book "Die großen Deutschen im Bilde" (“Great Germans in pictures”). (de Larmessin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It unlocked literacy

Reading and writing were the preserve of the ruling minority, simply because they were wealthy enough to be educated and own books, and everyone else was not. Before the printing press, scribes painstakingly reproduced texts by hand at a cost that was more than could be borne by anyone but the church or aristocracy. This, of course, meant that unless you were rich, you had nothing to read anyway. The new presses dramatically decreased the cost of producing books and increased the number of copies available, which meant more and more people could access them – and learn to read them.

Thoughts and opinions gained wings

Free speech became hard to quell. The first example of this was when theologian Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses in 1517, which criticised the Catholic Church and led to his excommunication. Apparently, he nailed a copy to a church door (the 16th Century equivalent of putting it on social media!) and it went on to sell over 300,000 copies. In a double whammy, the printing press also made it easier and more economical to translate these kinds of critiques, giving them even further reach and causing people across Europe to question the status quo. This period of history is now known as The Reformation, a time of huge political, cultural and religious upheaval that lay the groundwork for democracy as we know it today.

The invention of memes

Let’s not forget, widespread literacy didn’t just suddenly appear with the invention of the printing press, but The Reformation meant there was still plenty of propaganda to share. So, how could the opposing sides take full advantage of the invention of print in the interim? Cartoons, of course! These satirical illustrations were effectively the very first memes and caused uproar for their ridiculing depictions of figures from both the Catholic church and key reformation figures. Henry VIII, the Pope, Martin Luther and many others used this ‘new media’ to influence the public and some (such as a depiction of the Pope’s birth!) still have the power to shock, even by today’s standards.

By 1500, records show that almost 40,000 books
had been printed in 14 European countries

The democratisation of scientific thought

Before the widespread use of the printing press, science was a fragmented world. Handwritten notes containing potentially ground-breaking data, formulae, tables and findings existed in pockets all over the world but had no means of meeting. This meant that many theories had no way of being scrutinised, tested or improved by other scientists. The new ability to publish and share scientific findings, perfectly accurately – because handwritten copies were often guilty of containing errors – spring boarded disciplines of scientific practice. Over the next two centuries scholarly journals were responsible for a ‘revolution’, unifying the way science was communicated and inspiring swathes of new research.

How different would our world be without print? Without it, would any of the incredible societal and technological advances we take for granted today even exist? And when we look at how far print itself has come, it’s barely recognisable when compared to the inky wood and metal Gutenberg press, with its levers and blocks. As with everything, we take for granted the speed and capability of today’s commercial printers and the extraordinary feats of ingenuity they are capable of. And how, hundreds of years after The Reformation, print still plays a huge role in influencing our thoughts, ideas and actions through the books and magazines we buy, the companies we choose to purchase from, the art we love, the packaging we open and all the printed words and images we see around us every single day.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard