Gutenberg and the Western Print Revolution

Ellie Hendricks

“Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”

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.
Gutenberg and the Western Print Revolution
Gutenberg’s first print

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Gutenberg and the Western Print Revolution
Portrait of Gutenberg

Here, it should be emphasised that the while the Gutenberg press was cutting edge, it followed strong print developments in Asia

Wood block printing could be dated back to China in the 9th century. Other movable type presses could be found in Korea from 1250 and 75 years before Gutenberg’s Bible, a collection of Zen Buddhists teachings were released. These books however did not reach a wide audience, instead staying within the possession of nobility. In contrast, Gutenberg’s press would eventually affect a wide class range. An issue with early printing was the lack of book trading and while ideas could be communicated quickly they still needed to reach an audience. For this reason and following financial difficulties in Germany, many printers moved to Venice where its position as a trading route meant audiences and buyers could be found at every ship. Before long, daily news updates could be transported from the port along with religious texts and political literature; by the 1490’s Venice was the book printing capital of Europe. Over time, the benefits of printing were self-evident, information was more affordable, more accurate and the text earned credibility through its clear and uniform format. When Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and published in 1517, it became an instant bestseller and his writings spurred great change through their widespread distribution. Sadly, by his death in 1468 Gutenberg was financially ruined through lawsuits and disagreements with patrons. Over 500 years later his name is still associated with the ‘Information revolution’ and for the creation of the press, along with its significance in the spread of scientific knowledge, religion, accurate news and literature. Gutenberg’s designs would eventually go on to be replaced by steam powered machines in the 18th and 19th century, creating an even wider audience and beginning the decrease of the education disparity in Europe.
Ancestry UK
Gutenberg and the Western Print Revolution

Ellie Hendricks

Ellie wrote for Edition 3, Key events in history.
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