The internet, newspapers and even this blog are distant relatives of one very important invention- the printing press. Constructed in 1439 the Gutenberg press changed the way in which information was disseminated across the world forever.
It is difficult to imagine a time when books were not widely available. These days you will find at least one book in most households with the average being a staggering 158 in the UK. In medieval Europe books were precious. They were works of art which were created by monks by hand. These books were bejewelled objects prized by their owners who, of course, were the ruling classes. Most people were illiterate and would only hear the contents of a book at a public reading. Books were in the hands of the privileged few but all of this was to change with the invention of the printing press.
Johannes Gutenberg a noble from Mainz in Germany was a goldsmith by trade. He was influenced by the screw press which had been around since Roman times and wooden block printing methods. The wooden block had been used by the Chinese but cutting individual blocks was laborious. Gutenberg saw an opportunity for a new press and one which would be highly profitable.
He devised an alloy of tin, lead and antimony which would melt at low temperatures, cast well and be durable in the press. It was an major step forward. Using this alloy he created reusable pieces of type, individual letters which could be arranged in the correct order. As long as the letters didn’t wear out or break they could be used time and time again.
His other world changing invention was oil based ink. Prior to this ink was water based and was much less reliable. Oil based ink was durable and worked extremely well with the metal type blocks. It produced more vibrant and long lasting results. These revolutionary ideas meant that an infinite variety of texts could be made from the same resources.
In 1454 Johannes put the press into action and printed thousands of indulgences for the church. In 1455 he printed his most famous book – the Gutenberg bible. He printed two hundred copies of the bible which was the first book made using moveable type letters in the west. Each bible was a beautiful display of a new technology. He sold the bibles at a book fair in Frankfurt and each one cost the equivalent of three years salary for the average clerk. There are fifty surviving copies today.
The Gutenberg press marked a huge change in the way information was recorded and presented. Previously most of the books produced were religious however the press paved the way for the great thinkers of the time to record their thoughts. Philosophers, mathematicians and scientists now had a way of sharing information with more of the population. It also meant that scholars could all learn from the same texts not individually hand copied books which would often have contained errors.
The mass production of books encouraged literacy in the lower classes something which gained momentum with the passing years leading us to now where over 80% of the worlds population are literate.