The Printing Press: The Story of the Greatest Invention in History

computer generated image of a man using a printing press

A bunch of printing press keys

By Willi Heidelbach, CC by 2.5, WikiMediaCommons

What is the greatest invention in human history? It’s definitely an arguable point, that’s for sure.

Some scholars say it was the wheel, as it allowed us to move great distances much faster. Others like to point to nails and screws, as they gave us the ability to create structures, from small chairs to giant buildings.

The combustible engine, for crossing great distances. The telephone, for making long-distance dating a plausible thing (ya right).

Perhaps you’re more inclined to look at the medical side of things. Penicillin, with its massively important anti-bacterial features, has certainly saved hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

Or if you were a pope during the last century, you’d look upon condoms as having prevented the birth of nearly the same — while ignoring their hugely positive impact on humanity.

  • Airplanes — to let us soar like eagles through the clouds.
  • Spaceflight — to bring E.T. back home.
  • The internet — to virtualize bullying from the comfort of your home or White House.

Every top invention list seems to equate great inventions with an angle. And measure that angle towards its impact on humanity.

But where would we be without the knowledge of ideas themselves? How could we know what was the greatest invention if we never could learn of it in the first place?

A Scarcity of Knowledge

Before the 15th century, knowledge was a pricy thing to come by. Rates of literacy varied wildly depending on social class, country, and whether or not you lived in a city.

Across most of Europe, literacy rates were thought to be under 20% at the time. Even those estimates are sometimes considered high, especially for poor people residing in the countryside.

Estimated literacy rates of major countries from 1400s to 2010s

Created by Ourworldindata.org under Creative Commons license

Even the word literacy wasn’t a definite thing.

To some, being able to sign your name in your native language was considered literate.

To others, you had to be able to read and write most of your own language.

At an even greater extension, the meaning of literacy was the ability to perform all of the above — but only if you knew how to do so in Latin.

It required education from an early age, which usually meant a family had to come from money. You needed to have access to books, which in an age where everything was handwritten, was not an easy thing to come by.

You also might have needed a tutor, a teacher, or a professor to guide you along — which brings us right back to money.

In short, to become literate in the days of yore, you had to belong to the church, come from money, or be a pauper Albert Einstein who lived under the Library of Alexandria and read ancient texts for tricks.

Until about 1450, that is.

Gold and Gems

Johannes was born into a German patrician family sometime between 1394 and 1404. His father was either a cloth trader or a goldsmith who helped the local bishop.

Either way, by the time Johannes was an adult, he had a reputation for being a master in the art of gold. In the spotty records of his lifetime, he was even recorded as becoming so skillful at gem crafting that he taught the subject to pupils.

He also had an eye for entrepreneurship. And like most entrepreneurs, his early ventures were not on the successful side of things.

Sometime in 1439, one of his first recorded enterprises was a bit on the unique side. An exhibition was planned for later that year to showcase a vast collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne. Many of these unique items were considered to be of religious importance, if not completely holy.

And luckily for our gem polishing, metalworking friend — mirrors at the time were thought to capture holy light from religious objects.

Seeking to benefit from this religious pilgrimage, Johannes had the right skillset and the right mindset to invest heavily in advance for this event.

Alas, the holy light did not shine upon his venture because the event was delayed a year due to heavy flooding.

His investment in holy light having turned into holy shit, Johannes had to move on in other directions.

The Birth of Knowledge

Fast forward nine years and our crafty friend Johannes had clearly been busy. He had by this point taken out a loan from a wealthy brother-in-law while possibly inventing the now-classic line of “what is family for, after all?”

What he took out the loan of 800 guilders for isn’t 100% known for sure, but it’s highly likely it was used for his upcoming invention. For reference, that’s about $100,000 today — not a small investment for a mysterious invention.

Less than two years later, history was written. Or perhaps more literally— printed.

Johannes Gutenberg had spent the previous ten years creating Europe’s first movable-type printing press. Before this time, every text, novel, and book in Europe was written by hand.

A bible would take upwards of a single year for an unlucky scribe to write. With Gutenberg’s printing press — this could be done in a fraction of the time.

According to pricing tables a century later:

  1. Hand-copying could produce a few pages per day
  2. Hand-printing could make up to 40 pages
  3. The refined printing press could make up to 3,600 pages

Quite the difference, especially after most of the kinks were worked out.

Printing money?

Gutenburg went on to take out more loans to fund his newfound machine. Primarily, he had the idea he could make money from one of the biggest organizations at the time — the Roman Catholic Church.

His first printings were likely popular poems, religious scripts, and a Latin grammar school book. During this time, he attempted to perfect his creation and to eventually print mass quantities of what is now called the Gutenberg Bible.

Due to fund mismanagement, he lost his business in a lawsuit against another business partner. But historians believe he managed to retain or create a smaller workshop where he kept printing texts for people.

While not becoming the financial success he dreamed of, Gutenberg was given the title of Hoffman in 1465 — a gentleman of the court — by Archbishop von Nassau.

This included an annual stipend consisting of over 2,000 liters of tax-free wine and grain. He spent the remaining three years of his life drinking and eating like a king. Not a terrible way to go out.

Oh, and he is consistently remembered as one of the greatest inventors of the last 1,000 years, in addition to being a huge accelerator of the scientific revolution.

Not the First

While Gutenberg may not have invented the first printing press, he certainly created the seeds of the technology becoming mainstream in Europe.

The first recognized printing presses are thought to have come from China in the 11th century. These machines were created by an inventor named Bi Sheng and were crafted out of fine porcelain.

Even though Gutenberg didn’t go on to invent his version of the press until 400 years later, his version had a few key advantages that lead to its proliferation.

Notably, his technology involved matrices and hand molds. The type casts were built out of a uniquely durable metal alloy he concocted. And most importantly, European languages had far, far fewer total letters.

As an apples and oranges comparison, the Great Compendium of Chinese Characters published in 2006 lists 60,370 head entries for characters in Mandarin.

The maneuverability, consistent quality of printing, and the ability to construct entire volumes with less than 30 characters led Gutenberg’s machine to revolutionize Europe and the world.

He may have had riches in his eyes at the beginning, but I wonder if he could’ve possibly known the value his machine ended up bringing to humanity.

Since knowledge is often considered priceless, perhaps he should’ve earned more than only 2,000 liters of wine per year.

I’m sure he would’ve appreciated 2,000 kilos of cheese to go with it at the very least.


J.J. Pryor

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