Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and the invention of the mechanical movable type printing press helped disseminate knowledge wider and faster than ever before.
German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press around 1436, although he was far from the first to automate the book-printing process. Woodblock printing in China dates back to the 9th century and Korean bookmakers were printing with moveable metal type a century before Gutenberg.
But most historians believe Gutenberg’s adaptation, which employed a screw-type wine press to squeeze down evenly on the inked metal type, was the key to unlocking the modern age. With the newfound ability to inexpensively mass-produce books on every imaginable topic, revolutionary ideas and priceless ancient knowledge were placed in the hands of every literate European, whose numbers doubled every century.
Here are just some of the ways the printing press helped pull Europe out of the Middle Ages and accelerate human progress.
1. A Global News Network Was Launched
Gutenberg didn’t live to see the immense impact of his invention. His greatest accomplishment was the first print run of the Bible in Latin, which took three years to print around 200 copies, a miraculously speedy achievement in the day of hand-copied manuscripts.
But as historian Ada Palmer explains, Gutenberg’s invention wasn’t profitable until there was a distribution network for books. Palmer, a professor of early modern European history at the University of Chicago, compares early printed books like the Gutenberg Bible to how e-books struggled to find a market before Amazon introduced the Kindle.
“Congratulations, you’ve printed 200 copies of the Bible; there are about three people in your town who can read the Bible in Latin,” says Palmer. “What are you going to do with the other 197 copies?”
Gutenberg died penniless, his presses impounded by his creditors. Other German printers fled for greener pastures, eventually arriving in Venice, which was the central shipping hub of the Mediterranean in the late 15th century.
“If you printed 200 copies of a book in Venice, you could sell five to the captain of each ship leaving port,” says Palmer, which created the first mass-distribution mechanism for printed books.
The ships left Venice carrying religious texts and literature, but also breaking news from across the known world. Printers in Venice sold four-page news pamphlets to sailors, and when their ships arrived in distant ports, local printers would copy the pamphlets and hand them off to riders who would race them off to dozens of towns.
Since literacy rates were still very low in the 1490s, locals would gather at the pub to hear a paid reader recite the latest news, which was everything from bawdy scandals to war reports.
“This radically changed the consumption of news,” says Palmer. “It made it normal to go check the news every day.”
2. The Renaissance Kicked Into High Gear
The Italian Renaissance began nearly a century before Gutenberg invented his printing press when 14th-century political leaders in Italian city-states like Rome and Florence set out to revive the Ancient Roman educational system that had produced giants like Caesar, Cicero and Seneca.
One of the chief projects of the early Renaissance was to find long-lost works by figures like Plato and Aristotle and republish them. Wealthy patrons funded expensive expeditions across the Alps in search of isolated monasteries. Italian emissaries spent years in the Ottoman Empire learning enough Ancient Greek and Arabic to translate and copy rare texts into Latin.
The operation to retrieve classic texts was in action long before the printing press, but publishing the texts had been arduously slow and prohibitively expensive for anyone other than the richest of the rich. Palmer says that one hand-copied book in the 14th century cost as much as a house and libraries cost a small fortune. The largest European library in 1300 was the university library of Paris, which had 300 total manuscripts.
By the 1490s, when Venice was the book-printing capital of Europe, a printed copy of a great work by Cicero only cost a month’s salary for a school teacher. The printing press didn’t launch the Renaissance, but it vastly accelerated the rediscovery and sharing of knowledge.
“Suddenly, what had been a project to educate only the few wealthiest elite in this society could now become a project to put a library in every medium-sized town, and a library in the house of every reasonably wealthy merchant family,” says Palmer.
3. Martin Luther Becomes the First Best-Selling Author
There’s a famous quote attributed to German religious reformer Martin Luther that sums up the role of the printing press in the Protestant Reformation: “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”
Luther wasn’t the first theologian to question the Church, but he was the first to widely publish his message. Other “heretics” saw their movements quickly quashed by Church authorities and the few copies of their writings easily destroyed. But the timing of Luther’s crusade against the selling of indulgences coincided with an explosion of printing presses across Europe.
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As the legend goes, Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Palmer says that broadsheet copies of Luther’s document were being printed in London as quickly as 17 days later.
Thanks to the printing press and the timely power of his message, Luther became the world’s first best-selling author. Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German sold 5,000 copies in just two weeks. From 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all books sold in Germany and his German Bible went through more than 430 editions.
4. Printing Powers the Scientific Revolution
The English philosopher Francis Bacon, who’s credited with developing the scientific method, wrote in 1620 that the three inventions that forever changed the world were gunpowder, the nautical compass and the printing press.
For millennia, science was a largely solitary pursuit. Great mathematicians and natural philosophers were separated by geography, language and the sloth-like pace of hand-written publishing. Not only were handwritten copies of scientific data expensive and hard to come by, they were also prone to human error.
With the newfound ability to publish and share scientific findings and experimental data with a wide audience, science took great leaps forward in the 16th and 17th centuries. When developing his sun-centric model of the galaxy in the early 1500s, for example, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus relied not only on his own heavenly observations, but on printed astronomical tables of planetary movements.
When historian Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote her 1980 book about the impact of the printing press, she said that its biggest gift to science wasn’t necessarily the speed at which ideas could spread with printed books, but the accuracy with which the original data were copied. With printed formulas and mathematical tables in hand, scientists could trust the fidelity of existing data and devote more energy to breaking new ground.
5. Fringe Voices Get a Platform
“Whenever a new information technology comes along, and this includes the printing press, among the very first groups to be ‘loud’ in it are the people who were silenced in the earlier system, which means radical voices,” says Palmer.
It takes effort to adopt a new information technology, whether it’s the ham radio, an internet bulletin board, or Instagram. The people most willing to take risks and make the effort to be early adopters are those who had no voice before that technology existed.
“In the print revolution, that meant radical heresies, radical Christian splinter groups, radical egalitarian groups, critics of the government,” says Palmer. “The Protestant Reformation is only one of many symptoms of print enabling these voices to be heard.”
As critical and alternative opinions entered the public discourse, those in power tried to censor it. Before the printing press, censorship was easy. All it required was killing the “heretic” and burning his or her handful of notebooks.
But after the printing press, Palmer says it became nearly impossible to destroy all copies of a dangerous idea. And the more dangerous a book was claimed to be, the more the people wanted to read it. Every time the Church published a list of banned books, the booksellers knew exactly what they should print next.
6. From Public Opinion to Popular Revolution
During the Enlightenment era, philosophers like John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were widely read among an increasingly literate populace. Their elevation of critical reasoning above custom and tradition encouraged people to question religious authority and prize personal liberty.
Increasing democratization of knowledge in the Enlightenment era led to the development of public opinion and its power to topple the ruling elite. Writing in pre-Revolution France, Louis-Sebástien Mercier declared:
“A great and momentous revolution in our ideas has taken place within the last thirty years. Public opinion has now become a preponderant power in Europe, one that cannot be resisted… one may hope that enlightened ideas will bring about the greatest good on Earth and that tyrants of all kinds will tremble before the universal cry that echoes everywhere, awakening Europe from its slumbers.”
“[Printing] is the most beautiful gift from heaven,” continues Mercier. “It soon will change the countenance of the universe… Printing was only born a short while ago, and already everything is heading toward perfection… Tremble, therefore, tyrants of the world! Tremble before the virtuous writer!”
Even the illiterate couldn’t resist the attraction of revolutionary Enlightenment authors, Palmer says. When Thomas Paine published “Common Sense” in 1776, the literacy rate in the American colonies was around 15 percent, yet there were more copies printed and sold of the revolutionary tract than the entire population of the colonies.
7. Machines ‘Steal Jobs’ From Workers
The Industrial Revolution didn’t get into full swing in Europe until the mid-18th century, but you can make the argument that the printing press introduced the world to the idea of machines “stealing jobs” from workers.
Before Gutenberg’s paradigm-shifting invention, scribes were in high demand. Bookmakers would employ dozens of trained artisans to painstakingly hand-copy and illuminate manuscripts. But by the late 15th century, the printing press had rendered their unique skillset all but obsolete.
On the flip side, the huge demand for printed material spawned the creation of an entirely new industry of printers, brick-and-mortar booksellers and enterprising street peddlers. Among those who got his start as a printer's apprentice was future Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.