The Printing Press & Johannes Gutenberg

One of the most important inventions of this period must be the printing press. It allowed the ideas of the time: art, music, and humanism to spread like wildfire. Without this invention, it could be argued that the Renaissance would not have propelled us from the Middle Ages. The thing is, the printing press was already invented 440 years earlier in China. A gentleman named Bi Sheng created a type-press using clay blocks as a primitive to what would come during his lifetime (970-1051), but honestly, this type of printing had been done with wood blocks for generations before him. The Chinese kept working with different methodologies to perfect the craft, which was achieved by Wang Chen in 1297. He created a durable wood type press that revolved, helping it be more efficient and organized. He then became the first to mass produce a book, choosing Nung Shu, which detailed farming and agriculture practices. This made its way to Europe, and detailed inventions that would also be credited to Europeans later.

Gutenberg Printing Press

While Joannes Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, he did modify it in a way that enhanced its use. Born in Germany, he spent years in France in exile, where he worked in secret on perfecting printing as he switched from trade to trade. He returned to Germany, having made several changes to the practice. The Chinese printing presses were sheets that could be reused, but Gutenberg created metal blocks for each letter so that they could be reused and rearranged. He would create brass molds for the letters, so he could make multiple and they would be uniform. He retrofitted a grape press to press the paper flat, and created his own ink to work better with the metal. Due to financial troubles, he only ever printed one book, the Gutenberg bible, which was roughly 1,300 pages. He printed roughly 180 copies, which took roughly 50,000 sheets. The books are different due to the types of paper used, everything from parchment to calfskin, and Gutenberg never made any money off them. Only 49 still exist, and the ink is still as glossy today as it was 500 years ago. Lawsuits and his loss of eyesight ceased his printing efforts, and he died in 1460. As soon as he passed, Peter Schoffer, a German calligrapher who acquired Gutenberg’s press during a foreclosure in 1455, immediately began his own printing, starting with the Book of Psalms (only 10 of which survive).

Gutenberg Bible

From his hands, the press would make its way to Italy, where it was replicated by German printers who had worked with Gutenberg before being taken to France, Navarre, Spain, Portugal, and England. Despite the fact that the first books printed were bibles and the Book of Psalms were printed, the church rightfully feared the press. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI banned the printing of bibles without the church’s approval. His worst fears came true as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and William Tyndale began printing their own bibles and thesis, bringing forth reform and diminishing the Catholic Church’s power. 

Thanks to the printing press and the inventors who tinkered with it to make it more efficient, we are better educated than our ancestors could have imagined. With knowledge comes growth, and without the textbooks and ideas that could spread after the 15th century, this world would look very different.