There are many ideas and concepts that facilitated the transition from the Medieval Era to a more modern, Renaissance society, but it can be argued that Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was the most important factor to this change in Europe. The creation of the press was no easy task for Gutenberg; he was faced with many obstacles. However, once created, the press benefited people around the world for centuries and continues to be a fundamental part of our society today.
Before the invention of the printing press, books were extremely expensive, limiting education to the very wealthy. Because only the upper class could afford to purchase books, education was a means of separating the aristocracy from the lower classes. It was nearly impossible for the less fortunate to move up in society since they could not educate themselves.
The reason books were so pricey was due to the methods employed to create each page individually. For a scribe to copy an entire novel by hand would take much patience and many hours. A common method of producing copies was for one man to read the original word by word, and a group of scribes would write each word as the reader said them. “By this method,” describes John Fontana in his work Mankind’s Greatest Invention, “one manuscript served as the source of reproduction for many copies when the scribes finished writing the last of the reader’s orally presented words” (13). Not only was this time consuming, but the more copies that were made, the more errors were made.
Eventually, a method of creating copies without such a high margin of error came about. People would hand carve blocks of wood with raised letters and cover the blocks with ink. Then they would place a sheet of paper on the block to make a copy. To make the process even more difficult, they had to carve the letters and words backwards so they would print correctly, and they had to make these letters look normal when reversed.
Albert Kapr, in his book Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, describes how “a calligrapher had first to write out this text, which was traced as a mirror-image reversal on to a planed limewood plank and then cut out with a knife in such a way that the lettering was left as a raised surface” (21). This method is called xylography, and while it was an improvement in that it reduced mistakes, carving a block of wood for each page to be printed was even more time consuming than writing the words by hand, and books remained as expensive as ever.
Johann Gensfleisch Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany, wanted to change all this. His idea was to replace the wood blocks with separate letters made of metal. One would be able to move the letters around to make words and sentences, and then reuse them. “The key to this new method was not as is generally believed, the discovery of the value of movable type, for movable letters had been known and used for centuries,” explains Fontana. “It was the mechanism for making the types” (28). This type of printing press was, in fact, already being used in China, but the technology to create such a machine was yet to be discovered in Europe.
In working to build this machine, Gutenberg was faced with obstacle after obstacle. Just when he would think he might have mastered it, he would encounter another problem to solve. “The invention of typography was not,” noted Theo DeVinne in his work The Invention of Printing, “the result of a happy thought or of a flash of inspiration. It was not born in a day . . . it was thought out and wrought out” (376). To begin with, he had two main concerns: finding a device that would keep the letters in place, and making a press that would print clearly.
Gutenberg soon came up with a solution to the first of the two issues. He paid a carpenter for the use of his winepress, so as to have “a suitable bed for a page of metal letters to rest on,” and arranged the letters on one side of it (Fontana 22). He wanted to come up with a frame to hold the paper; then when one was ready to print, they could twist a screw to press the paper up against the letters. The letters were to be created by pouring melted metal into a mold.
Then Gutenberg came across several more problems. The first was the question of how to make all of the letters exactly the same thickness so that when they were pressed against the paper, they would print evenly. Also, he needed a solution for putting narrow letters on narrow metal bases and wide letters on wide bases. Using the same base for all letters would not only be impractical in that it would waste space, it would also make the words look uneven, with different sized spaces between letters. Regardless of the width of the character, each metal piece had to be the same height so the lines would not be crooked. DeVinne made the point that “if the types of one character, as of the letter a, should be made the merest trifle larger or smaller than its fellows of the same font, all the types, when composed, will show the consequences of the defect” (52).
Gutenberg came up with two brilliant ideas to solve the problems. In order to make all of the letters the same thickness, he made the mold the desired height and added extensions on the sides to catch any overflowing metal. That way he could make sure that they would not be too thick, and as long as he poured metal to the top, they would not be too thin. Once dried, “this extra piece at the bottom of the metal letters opposite to the part the prints called the face, was easily broken off and smoothed before it was used for the printed page” (Fontana 30). As for making the letters different widths, he had to make an adjustable mold. He first experimented using wood, and once perfected, he made one out of metal. He came up with a mold that consisted of two L-shaped pieces that could fit together, and slide back and forth to make the enclosed area larger or smaller.
Here Gutenberg encountered further setbacks. The lead he had been using to make the letters was too soft-it was printing unevenly after just a few pages had been printed. Gutenberg solved the problem of making the typeface hard enough to resist pressure by mixing the lead with parts of tin and a substance that acted like antimony,” hardening the metal and preventing expansion or shrinkage while the metal dried (Fontana 30). It also took a lot of searching to find ink that was the right consistency to leave a thin layer on paper. Should it be too thin, it would spread through the paper, and should it be too thick, it would clump and appear uneven.
Upon fixing these problems, Gutenberg had come up with his first working printing press. With it, he printed copies of the first, second, and third editions of the Donatus. However, few people would purchase the pages because many considered his invention immoral, as they believed hand-written script to be a sacred art. Also, there were still problems with the press.
The type face varied too much-the lines would go from thin to thick and back to thin again, and the ink did not stick to paper well. DeVinne tells us that “judged by modern standards, the types are ungraceful; the text letters are too dense and black, and the capitals are of rude form, obscure, and too small for the text” (421). The press itself took a lot of strength, especially when making multiple copies. All of these parts needed improvement, so Gutenberg got to work. He created more defined molds and stronger metal letters, which allowed for thinner printed lines.
In hopes of eventually printing the Bible, Gutenberg worked to create letters that would, when placed together, resemble the handwriting of scribes. It was a difficult task, but he managed to finalize pages of beautiful lettering, each having two columns. The only problem was that only thirty-six lines would fit on a page, and Gutenberg wanted to fit forty-two lines. Otherwise, the amount of pages to print the Bible would be much greater and more costly. “If he had been only an ordinary dreamer about great inventions,” believes DeVinne, “he would have abandoned an enterprise so hedged in with mechanical and financial difficulties” (416).
It was around this time that Gutenberg met John Fust, who offered to help finance his project if they could form a partnership. Gutenberg agreed as he was greatly in need of a means of paying for new equipment to make a forty-two-page press. DeVinne reports that these “small types were unique; they were never used, so far as we know for any other work” (406). This was most likely Gutenberg’s greatest mistake, because when Fust did not get a quick return on his money, he sued Gutenberg for almost all of his equipment, including the new printing press. This was a set back from which Gutenberg never recovered, and though his invention greatly benefited many, he died a poor man.
The printing press made a dramatic impact on European culture in many ways. One important way that it affected society was to bring about a higher level of individualism than had been before experienced. As Marshall McLuhan noted in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man, “the portability of the book, much like that of easel-painting, added much to the new cult of individualism” (206). Because there was no longer the need to be a part of a University or monastery in order to have access to books and education, people began spending more and more time on their own, teaching themselves, and therefore, becoming more and more independent.
The distribution of a highly increased number of books due to the invention of the press also facilitated individualistic ideas by giving more people the opportunity to read, forcing them to interpret information themselves. In an oral culture, one is taught by the verbal explanations of others, allowing little opportunity for personal interpretation or for discovering oneself through thought and analysis of material, as is possible in a written culture. “To the oral man the literal is inclusive, contains all possible meanings and levels,” and through the introspection demanded by this increase in reading, individualism soared (McLuhan 111).
With this increase in individualism came much higher levels of education and literacy. McLuhan, in discussing the advantages the press gave to learning, said “this very natural inclination towards accessibility and portability went hand in hand with greatly increased reading speeds which were possible with uniform and repeatable type” (207). Because the printing press used the same mold for multiple copies of the same letter, it was much less difficult to read than when it was necessary to accustom oneself with each scribe’s handwriting with which one was encountered.
The significant decrease in the price of books that occurred in conjunction with the printing press paved the way for the education and rise of a new middle class. “The book became a source of productive energy for a new breed of merchants and entrepreneurs,” and where before these people had been held back from penetrating the higher levels of society, they could now afford to educate themselves (Kapr 20). This education led to a cycle that allowed the middle class to make more money, which allowed them to purchase even more books and further educate themselves. While this new class of people did not have the social status of the aristocracy, Wyndham Lewis stated that “birth or training, in this age that has been called that of bastards and adventurers, never mattered less” (qtd. in McLuhan 119).
Another important change that the invention of the printing press brought about was the new concept of mass production. Before the press, nobody had thought of the idea of creating something that could produce multiple copies of anything, so multiple copies of pages were just the first of endless possibilities. “Just as print was the first mass-produced thing, so it was the first uniform and repeatable commodity,” and the realization that exact duplicates could be made of products other than books was one that has been acted on for centuries to bring us mass-production as we know it today (McLuhan 125).
Clearly Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable type was a turning point in history from medieval to modern times. While its creation took many practice runs and a lot of trial-and-error, Gutenberg’s incredible patience and determination paid off and helped to build the new culture of the Renaissance. The press was not just a means of copying the written page, but a vehicle for the concept of individualism, the rise of education and the new middle class, and an introduction to mass production.
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