Francis Bacon, an English philosopher responsible for creating the Scientific Method, wrote in 1620 that the three inventions that changed the world forever were the nautical compass, gunpowder, and the printing press.
It was in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg began tinkering away in Strasbourg, France, on one of those very inventions: the printing press. It took Gutenberg over a decade to complete a fully operational and commercially viable machine that would become known to the world as the Gutenberg Printing Press. He may not have known it then, but his invention would change the world forever.
The printing press gave birth to movements and revolutions, discovery, and scientific breakthroughs. It gave a voice to the otherwise voiceless, and shaped cultures and societies for centuries to come. Things you thought inconceivable were sometimes the direct result of the invention of the printing press.
10. Created a World that Could Advance Faster
Advancements would have happened without the printing press, but it opened doors to undeniable possibility. There are, obviously, lingering effects of a pivotal invention that have long outlived the first iteration.
There are moments in history that may have never been possible without the printing press. Gutenberg’s creation facilitated a world that could advance faster on a technological, scientific, and sociological level. The effect this machine would have was unprecedented and profound, and it’s likely that Gutenberg never even considered what his machine might do for the modern world.
The ability to share ideas more expeditiously and more accurately meant that we could learn to adapt to a changing world – one that was changing much faster than ever thought possible.
9. The Printing Press: An Agent for Political Change
There are many instances throughout history where the printing press has acted as an agent for political change. This was, and still is, a powerful weapon which has swung both ways.
Revolutions such as the French Revolution in 1789 were led by philosophers who sought to question everything from nature to God itself through the Renaissance. Armed with knowledge and growing literary rates, they were able to capture the attention of the everyday man, which resulted in a revolution against the monarchy.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 was aided by the many publications of Vladimir Lenin’s thoughts on the future of Russia, which were based on the dismantling of the Russian monarchy and ending Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Lenin’s work served as a manifesto of what could be in Russia, and its people paid attention considering the economic struggles they were experiencing. This wasn’t even the first attempt at revolution, considering in 1905, through the power of the printing press to spread propaganda, Russia went through a revolution led by Viktor Chernov and Leon Trotsky.
“Mein Kampf,” which essentially became the Nazi bible in Germany’s Third Reich, was published in 1925 and helped Hitler articulate his ideas to a nation of readers. This wasn’t the catalyst to Hitler’s rise to power, but it echoed many of his beliefs, which he spoke to consistently during the 1920s when he ascended to the top of the political ranks before beginning one of the darkest periods in human history.
The printing press meant that anyone could make their voices heard. This sometimes meant the sharing of ideas or propaganda to help change the political landscape of a nation for the good of the people, or to their detriment.
8. The Rise of Novels
Novels existed before the printing press, but not on a grand scale. Rare, often one-of-a-kind novels were created as early as 868 AD, by historical estimation. In Dunhuang, China, they used the block printing method, where they utilized panels of hand-crafted wooden blocks in reverse. The oldest known book crafted in Dunhuang during the Tang Dynasty was titled “The Diamond Sutra,” which was a Buddhist book.
After Gutenberg created the printing press, in 1455 copies of the bible were produced and came to be known formally as the “Gutenberg Bible.” His print of the bible was the first extant book in the Western World. With the invention of the printing press, novels and other books could now be produced and sold to the world. This meant the start of a new age of storytelling, and it allowed for the creation of some of history’s most celebrated works of fiction to be enjoyed for centuries to come. It made books more accessible. As decades and centuries went by, books became cheaper, which only added to the accessibility already established by the printing press.
Without the printing press, one can only imagine what might have been the way we consume fantastical tales and gripping tragedies. You know, other than Netflix.
7. The First Best-Selling Author
Today best-selling authors exist in droves, but before the printing press, this wasn’t possible. Long before there even was a Best Sellers list, there was one man who became the world’s first known best-selling author, and his story was one of rebellion against the establishment.
Martin Luther was a pivotal player in the Protestant Reformation, a movement that swept through Europe during the 1500s. The core identity of this reformation was one of differences in doctrine and core ideology under the umbrella of the Christian faith. This moment in history saw many religious groups pulling away from what was the standard of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church.
The loudest voice of this movement became Martin Luther, who famously produced and published a document titled ‘Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,’ which was more commonly referred to as 95 Theses.
Luther, by no means, was the first to question and attempt to sidestep the Roman Catholic Church, which had considerable power in Europe. Still, he was successful due to his timing. His attempts at talking out on the powerhouse that is the Roman Catholic Church were aided by the printing press. Whereas others were silenced, and documents destroyed, Luther took 95 Theses, which were allegedly nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg, and turned it into a document that became widely available to the masses.
His message resonated with the people and became an instant hit, creating the world’s first best-selling author. For nearly a decade, from 1517 to 1525, Luther made up roughly a third of the books sold throughout Germany.
6. The Renaissance
Long before the printing press was ever an idea of its famed creator, the Italian Renaissance had begun across Europe. The Renaissance was a concerted effort to revive the educational system akin to Ancient Rome. One of the primary goals of the renaissance’s earliest days was to recover and republish the works of influential figures such as Aristotle and Plato.
Decades were spent searching for the works of famous intellectuals and philosophers to build up a collection of knowledge worthy of being taught to future generations. Expeditions across the Alps were conducted to search for some of the most isolated monasteries. While missions like that, and the search throughout the Ottoman Empire to discover and decode ancient Arabic and Greek texts into Latin were happening long before the printing press, it was the printing press itself that changed the game.
The printing press allowed the Renaissance to accelerate to speeds unthought of by the leaders of the pivotal Italian movement. A movement that birthed rediscovery, art, intellectuals, and the accessible sharing of knowledge was now happening faster, and was more expansive in its reach.
5. Jobs and the Rise of Machines
At the time of Gutenberg’s creation, the Industrial Revolution was still a few centuries away. But regardless of the timing of the paradigm shift that would be the Industrial Revolution, the printing press was giving the developed world a taste of what machines would bring about: losing jobs.
As the printing press became more widely adopted, scribes were left without work. This was one of the early glimpses into the reality of adopting machines, as they replaced the need for manual labor on a grand scale. Before Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, scribes were working for bookmakers, creating intricately designed hand-copies of manuscripts and documents. With the printing press, their services became less required, until their roles in the production of literature were minimized to the brink of being obsolete.
On some level, the printing press created more jobs than it culled. However, it wasn’t so much about the printing press as much as it was about the future of labor. The printing press rendered an entire profession almost obsolete, and some saw the writing on the wall for a future long before the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.
4. Fringe Movements Has Access to An Audience
Arguably, some of the greatest minds of Enlightenment found access to larger swaths of the population thanks to the printing press. However, while some of those minds got to express their views on a grander scale, they weren’t the only ones. They’d already had their voices heard; they benefited from more people hearing their ideas, thoughts, and perceptions of various topics well before the printing press. Now the people who were shut out of the earliest systems of information sharing were finding their own renaissance of sorts.
Fringe movements were some of the initial eager adopters of this wonderful invention that was gaining momentum across Europe. They saw an opportunity that perhaps others didn’t jump on fast enough, and they used it to their advantage. This meant something that many governments weren’t happy with: the radicals had a voice.
These fringe movements were anything and everything, like the standard critics of the government, conspiracy theorists, egalitarian groups, radical religious groups, and more. While governments went through extensive efforts to shut down and censor these voices, they found it wasn’t as easy as the days pre-printing press. This is something that’s become even more relevant today where information, be it right or wrong, never dies on the internet. Another aspect relevant to the present that made the attempts at censorship in the 15th century and beyond was the allure of banned books. The more the Church published their list of banned books, the more the printers and bookshops pushed them out, weakening efforts to dismiss the fringe voices.
3. Scientific Revolution
Long before sharing information was as easy as it is today, science was a solitary pursuit. Some of the most brilliant minds on the planet were separated by geography and languages, but even worse, the crippling pace of sharing information via the archaic means of hand-written publications. However, it wasn’t just an issue of speed or availability; it was also the instances of human error.
With the invention of the printing press, science was changed forever. Scientific discoveries, methods, and experimental data could now be shared with more great minds much faster, and this resulted in a revolution of sorts during the 16th and 17th centuries when science took significant leaps forward in understanding our world.
Scientists celebrated the ability to share their work and advance ideas thanks to knowledge being spread faster, wider, and without errors. And considering the time saved on hand-written publishing, they could focus on the science and devote more time and energy to new breakthroughs. There was even a newly established community of scientists. Thanks to the printing press, scientist authorship became more profitable and meaningful.
2. Access to Knowledge and The Enlightenment
Before the printing press, access to knowledge was limited to subsets of society deemed as the nobility, monarchy, and the clergy. During an incredibly critical time in history, philosophers such as Voltaire, John Locke, and many others were read by a population that was growing in terms of their literary prowess.
The ideas of these influential philosophers were during an era known as the Enlightenment, when people found themselves emboldened to question the true powers of religious authority and seek true personal liberty. Philosophers like Locke, Voltaire, and others used critical reasoning in place of what were the customs and traditions of society, and their need to question everything made others do the same.
The Enlightenment is one of the most important moments in history, made possible thanks to Gutenberg’s invention from centuries before the movement took place. Thanks to the widespread availability of knowledge and information, people grew in literacy capabilities. The improved access to knowledge meant the ideas of Voltaire, Locke, and so many others weren’t just for the select few, but anyone who wanted to devour these bold concepts that challenge the status quo. It is because of this moment in history that the French Revolution began in 1789, which is also considered the moment the Enlightenment reached its crescendo.
1. News Distribution
One of the most profound contributions Gutenberg’s printing press brought to the world was the widespread availability of the news. While he may have never lived to see what his invention resulted in, there’s no denying its staying power.
Originally, Gutenberg used his printing press to print copies of the bible. Unfortunately, at the time there was no widespread distribution network for literature of any kind, and this meant that Gutenberg didn’t make any real money and died a penniless man.
Eventually, other printers left Germany for Venice, which during the 15th century was the central shipping hub of the Mediterranean. A mass-distribution network was eventually established for books and printed news pamphlets. There wasn’t a market for books or printed news pamphlets on a grand scale at the time because of the incredibly low literacy rates. This meant that locals would go to the pubs and taverns to hear literate people reading the news to them for a fee. As the centuries went on and literacy rates skyrocketed, the demand for printed works of novels and news grew, allowing for informed and educated citizens of modern societies. Accessing the news became an expectation, rather than a privilege.