Great Moments: The Printing Press

Johann Gensfleischzur Laden zum Gutenberg wasn’t an inventor by trade, he was a goldsmith. Spending years working on the first printing press in secrecy, Gutenberg didn’t just use existing technology in new ways, he created new processes to make his invention work.

Olives and grapes had been pressed for centuries before Gutenberg co-opted the machine, but the press itself wasn’t enough, he had to create a way to set text. While woodblock prints were utilized in China, historians don’t believe Gutenberg was aware of them. In fact, he made his letter molds to produce individual types based off a coin minting process. The final piece was a new oil-based ink that was able to print on both paper and vellum. With this creation, Gutenberg’s press was ready to come out of hiding and be introduced to the world.

While all of the pieces, individually, had been around in various forms for years, bringing them together in the printing press immortalized Johannes Gutenberg as one of the greatest inventors in history. But why was this such a seminal moment? Books, in the mid-15th century, were handwritten and copied by professional scribes, a time and labor-intensive process. To say that books were the purview of the wealthy is an exercise in simplicity; what the press did was to democratize access to books.

Now that books were available to more people, not just scribes and those in religious orders, printers were able to change from printing exclusively in Latin to common languages, creating standardized forms of those languages for the first time. Imagine the lightning quickness with which Marin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ were spread—within two months they had reached throughout Europe. This could not have happened without the then 62-year-old printing press. But the Protestant Reformation was not the only revolution brought about through the accessibility of the printed text. A new class of intellectuals was born, and that community was to bring forth new ideas leading to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the dawn of the Industrial Age.

Johannes Gutenberg is a titan of history for good reason; so much that we take for granted today is a direct result of the work he did then. If you would like to see an example of the Gutenberg press in action, click here.