The rise of literacy in the West is often sourced to one event, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. This revolutionary device allowed for the quick circulation of news and opinion, the mass production and spread of religious texts, and the beginnings of widespread learning in the West. While the Renaissance was already underway, the ability to print and reprint information led to significant developments in public knowledge, as well as the creation of some of the world’s greatest libraries. Famed protestant reformer Martin Luther stated, “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”.
The creator of the press, Johannes Gutenberg (or Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg) was born into a noble family in the 14th century, Mainz, Germany. Most information about Gutenberg has been found in financial transactions, with the timeline of the press’s invention shrouded in mystery; only coming to light due to a lawsuit against Gutenberg in Strasbourg in 1439.
As a stonecutter and goldsmith, Gutenberg devised a movable type system that was made up of individual letters instead of entire pages, this allowed for the pieces to be reused indefinitely until they eventually wore down. Unlike wood block printing which had already been well established, the new press used an alloy of lead, tin and antimony, materials that lasted significantly longer and maintained a high quality throughout each print. Following on from the medieval paper press and adapted from traditional designs used to press wine or olives, the Gutenberg press used a screw threaded spiral mechanism to create quick work and an even pressure, when in use it could print 250 sheets an hour on one side.
The first book to be printed and sold from the press was the Gutenberg Bible in 1455, two hundred copies were printed and of those, nearly fifty survive today.