Contrary to popular belief, Guttenberg did not invent printing; he invented the printing press. Printing itself began in China with wood-carved reliefs of each character that could be pressed onto a medium like silk. The Chinese also invented moveable type, too. However, early forms of printing were still expensive and time-consuming. Guttenberg’s printing press solved both of those problems. Even though it could take a full day to set one type tray, his metal letter molds and oil-based ink made presses more durable and faster, thus making books cheaper and more available to the public. Guttenberg’s printing press changed the world, and from 1430 on, we haven’t looked back.
Hand-scribing books meant limited books…and limited literacy
Before the printing press, books in Europe were hand-scribed, and thus with books difficult to come by and very expensive, few other than the elite could read. Granted, these books often contained beautiful calligraphy and artwork, and illuminated manuscripts were real works of art. The mass-produced books weren’t so beautiful, but they made information more accessible to a middle class that was becoming increasingly literate. The cheaper books were, the more literate the masses became.
Mass-production meant more freedom to disseminate information.
With books being more widely available to the public and cheap to buy and produce, more books, and thus, more ideas, could be shared. Before the printing press, the most commonly scribed book was the bible and the church had among her ranks most of the scribes; scientific and philosophical ideas couldn’t be so widely shared with the world. The Gutenberg press took the monopoly of publishing from the church and put the power into the hands of whoever could pay to run the printing press. Not only could more books be printed, but also pamphlets and other documents. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, for example, used broadsheets akin to today’s newspapers.
Newspapers inform us all
Even if it took one person a long time to set a type page, once it was set, it could keep printing pages repeatedly. Having a group of people setting type pages for a group of presses meant that multiple pages could be created and printed that day, giving rise to printed news. Newspapers arose in the 17th century and became more widespread in Europe and the United States in the 18th century. They’re essentially still the same as they’ve been for centuries. Whereas news could be largely shared by mouth through conversation, public decree, or other announcements, printed news could share the same facts and the same information with everyone who could read, reaching a larger audience more quickly. With the invention of the telegraph and then the telephone, regional, national, and world news could be disseminated daily, sometimes more ofte.
Books could be mass-produced for information and instruction.
Cookbooks, history books, and a variety of fiction and non-books became possible with the printing press. Ideas that were novel or even controversial, such as scientific theories, philosophies, or political ideas could reach a wide audience through use of the printing press. Anyone who could read a book could expand their horizons and teach themselves any subject they had the interest or stomach to learn. Without books, a country boy born in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky could learn math, language, history, and law despite having no one around him to teach him. This country boy in particular was Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States.
Knowledge became egalitarian.
For those who could read, could access books and newspapers, and had the curiosity and time to read could know just as much about a subject as someone who had a formal education if they read and retained enough. Books were still cheaper than tutors or private education, and in some places, books were much more readily available than a comprehensive formal education.
Those who could write and entice someone to publish the works for them or could afford to have their books published did so. This meant that visionaries didn’t have to rely on the approval of the establishment to get their works out there. For example, Walt Whitman, the father of modern poetry, was heavily involved in the printing and publishing of his book, Leaves of Grass. Thomas Paine’s self-printed Common Sense pamphlet advocated for the 13 American colonies to seek independence from Great Britain and was read widely in meeting places…and taverns.
The birth of the novel.
While the art of storytelling is something that we have always had with us, and classics and epics like the Iliad were hand-scribed on scrolls, the modern novel couldn’t have really existed without the printing press. In order to create a work of fiction to entertain a wide variety of people, the writer would need access to cheap, uniform printing methods. The easier it was to publish books, the more possibilities there were for writers to create and share works of fiction with others.
One press = uniformity in language.
Hand-scribed books were often full of errors or variations in spelling and grammar. However, with the printing press, spelling became uniform. In fact, the need to save space on a type page meant fewer extraneous letters and punctuation. Sharing information with a variety of people meant that they all had to understand what was being written and shared. Thus, over time, spelling and grammar became standardized. Lettering, too, became more simple and easy to read. Now, every written language also has a consensus of how words should be spelled and sentences written.