Mainz (1455), Strasbourg (1458), Cologne (1465), Rome (1467), Augsburg, Basel and (1468), Nuremberg and Paris (1470), Cracow, Bruges, Buda, and Barcelona (1473), London and Gouda (1477), Leipzig (1481), Vienna and Odense (1482), Stockholm (1483), Prague (1487), Danzig (1499). From its invention by Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg the movable type printing press spread in a process that in contemporary terms was as dramatic and transformative a process as the advent of the digital age in recent years.
Though movable type is first known in China c. 1040, and metal moveable type in Korea in 1234, Gutenberg’s independent invention was the first to utilise a mold with punch-stamped matrices to cast type. The addition of a type-metal alloy, consisting of lead, tin and antimony, oil based printing inks, and a new press derived from those used in wine making, paper making, and book binding allowed Gutenberg to mass produce books at relatively low cost. Other than the invention of writing itself Gutenberg’s printing press is arguably the greatest single invention of all time.
By 1500, just forty-six years after the printing of Gutenberg’s thirty-one line Indulgence, some one thousand printing presses set up in Europe had issued six million books in approximately forty thousand editions. Probably more books than had been produced in the entire history of civilization in Western Europe before 1454. The production of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 had immediate social and political impact. Here was a technology that offered the potential for the entire populace to have their own copy of the Bible, that paved the way for the Reformation, and that gave individuals like Martin Luther an opportunity to disseminate their work to a far wider audience through the mass production of cheap pamphlets.
The relatively effortless production of multiple copies meant that knowledge could be disseminated more quickly, further, and at a cheaper cost than ever before. The German astronomer and mathematician Regiomontanus swiftly recognized the suitability of print for the manufacture and distribution of data and in 1471 set up a printing press to publish copies of the mathematical and astronomical observation tables he had produced. Print allowed the reproduction without error and wide circulation to other specialists who could verify and build upon the data the printed book contained. Within a few decades the basic form of the printed codex with a title page, page numbers, a table of contents, and an index was in common use, while the type cutter Francesco Griffo invented the idea of italics in 1495.
Mass production was not without its problems however. Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German in 1522 was quickly followed by a second edition that contained many printing errors, while between 1522 and 1546 there were eighty-seven vernacular editions of his New Testament printed outside Wittenberg and without Luther’s approval, the first pirate edition appearing in December 1522. Luther responded by insisting that the ‘Luther Rose’ be imprinted on editions he had personally overseen, together with the words, “let this sign be a witness to the fact that such books as bear it have gone through my hands, for there is much illegal printing and corruption of books going on these days.” Today international agreements and national law have more to say about copyright.
Though ultimately transformative and far reaching in its effects the invention of the printing press per se did not alter the intellectual and philosophical landscape of the world. Not only did Gutenberg’s press arrive at a time when a combination of other technologies and processes reached maturity (the paper making industry and the magnifying lens for example) but it was also developed within a culture in which social practices allowed it to develop. Where Europe allowed the printing press to spread in relative freedom the earlier manifestation of movable type in China, some 400 years before Gutenberg, did not lead to the revolution in printing or of ideas that came in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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