Hands On: Gutenberg’s Printing Press

wayne Rash

The printing press allowed our information age. Wayne Rash sees where Gutenberg started it

The lever was cool to the touch as I grasped it, reaching head high with both hands. “Pull hard,” the man next to me advised, so I did, and kept pulling as the lever creaked. “That’s enough,” he said, “you can let go now.”

I dropped my hands to my side and then helped the museum staffer from the Gutenberg Museum (in Mainz Germany) slide the printing plate and the paper it held from beneath the press. I held out my hands, and in them he placed a paper in Germanic script and the Latin text. It was a newly printed page from Gutenberg’s Bible. But it was more than that. It was from the device that had changed civilization forever.

mainz gutenberg printing pressGutenberg’s startup changed the world

While the printing press with moveable type that Johannes Gutenberg developed nearly 600 years ago seems modest by today’s standards, there is a direct technological link between this machine — with parts originally designed for a wine press — and the Internet.

The printing press led almost immediately to the printing revolution, widespread literacy and the development of mass communications. Today, the ultimate means of mass communications is the Internet and the HTML language. HTML itself is derived from a markup language to specify document formatting for printing. It is, in effect, a means for printing on a screen instead of paper.

But being able to produce printed pages isn’t what changed civilization. In addition, Gutenberg, as is the case with many who created a transformative technology, based his work on previous inventions. Printing presses existed before Gutenberg, as did moveable type. But it was the combination of several technologies put together that made the difference.

When Gutenberg launched his startup printing shop in 1439, it was the combination of the press, metallic type, a device to make more metallic letters, an oil-based ink and the concept of mass production that made the difference. In fact, many believe the key was Gutenberg’s type-molding device that allowed the quick production of letters or symbols required for printing a page. With this, he could use a pre-made mold of a letter or a mold of some other symbol and pour an alloy of lead, tin and antimony into the mold to create the letter on a type block.

The ability to create new letters or new symbols (punctuation marks, for example) as needed meant that printing production could be ramped up to the pace necessary to print as many documents as were required.

the gutenberg museum's replica of gutenberg's pressHot metal and the first viral document

By the time Gutenberg was printing his now famous and greatly treasured Bibles, he had a staff and three printing presses going to produce a variety of documents.

It was this ability to print as many of the same documents as were needed quickly and accurately that led to the transformative development that was mass communications. Perhaps more telling, it was the ability of the printing press to turn out vast quantities of the same document from a number of different places that led in 1517 to the first document to “go viral.” That document was Martin Luther’s 95 Theses that were distributed in printed form to launch the Reformation that rocked the Catholic Church and all of Christian Europe.

While it would be wrong to say that the Internet is simply printing taken to the next level, there is a direct line from the printing revolution to the Internet revolution. The moveable metallic type has given way to photons and pixels, but the principles remain. The Internet gives us the ability to create, revise and distribute documents faster than ever.

Like Gutenberg’s printing press, we can create new symbols as needed; we can combine symbols into words, words into thoughts and with those thoughts, we can change minds. It is the ability to take those new thoughts, spread them through the world to impact the thinking of others and to influence events that made Gutenberg’s printing transformative. It is what now makes the Internet even more transformative.

But, of course, there’s much more to the Internet than simple printed words. There’s the ability to spread knowledge, to preserve ideas and to generate new thoughts. The printing revolution did this as well, because it was printing that enabled the explosion in knowledge that led to the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and, eventually, to a knowledge-based economy that we enjoy today.

Like the Internet, Gutenberg’s printing process launched thousands of imitators as printing spread through Europe and the world. As information became widely available, society changed. The difference brought by the Internet was that this information could be delivered on demand anywhere, instantly.

The Internet, effectively, stands on Gutenberg’s shoulders.The quick and efficient distribution of information in print  led to the explosion in knowledge that was the Internet. Before Gutenberg, mass communications was impossible. With the ability to distribute information that Gutenberg developed, the explosion became inevitable.

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Originally published on eWeek.