It is almost impossible to imagine the world without Gutenberg’s Printing press. It revolutionised the way the written word was circulated throughout the world, lead to book printing being seen as an ‘art form’ with it’s varying typographies and helped usher in the “Printing Revolution” – a period of time when the printing press facilitated the widespread circulation of news, information and ideas and was seen as an “agent of change” throughout societies and to the people that it’s message reached (Eisenstein 1980).
How the original Printing Press would have looked. Credit
Johannes Gutenberg did not live in a vacuum and his invention was made possible, largely, because of the maturing technologies of his time. The rapid economic and industrial development of late medieval society in Europe meant that an invention that proved most useful to the Printing press’s development, the screw press – which enabled direct pressure to be applied onto a flat plane, was already in use throughout society (Marshall 2011) and was even seen as ‘antiqued’. It was Gutenberg’s understanding of this procedure, and his ability to alter the design and construction of the press to allow elasticity and an exertion of even pressure across the paper that made his version of the printing press possible. Gutenberg also sped up the printing process significantly by designing movable tables underneath the plane surface to allow the sheets to be quickly removed and changed (Wolf 1974, p36). The mechanization of paper production in the early 13th century (Burns 1996), and the ability to mass-produce this resource, was another vital factor in the creation of Gutenberg’s press. The way Gutenberg combined these previous technologies with his own innovations to create something completely unique and extremely useful is why some scholars, such as Stehpan Füssel, call him a “genius” (2001).
Perhaps one of the most fundamental ways the printing press changed the way we transmit and translate information was the use of the ‘codex’ format in the printing press, as opposed to the scroll format more commonly used in medieval times. This transition, from ancient scroll to documents that closely resemble our books of today, is considered the single most important advance in the history of book printing (Roberts & Skeat 1983, p75). This codex format has a significant impact on the way the information being copied is transmitted to people as it was more convenient to read and transport, less costly to print and more compact then it’s scroll predecessor. Perhaps most vitally, however, the codex was easier to copy and, unlike the scroll, both recto and verso (back and front!) could be used for writing and printing.
An example of codex. A Gutenberg Bible on display. Credit
Asides from these innovations, we must remember that Gutenberg’s technology was not without it’s limitations and many inventors, such as Koenig and his Flatbed Cylinder Press, tried to improve upon the original invention. It must also be remembered that the idea of printing was not anything particularly new. Before Gutenberg, there was a series of inventions that allowed printing; including the use of woodblocks, which was popular in the Holy Roman Empire (Burland 2013) and had actually originated in China in the 7th Century before migrating to Europe (Chappell 2011).
Despite this it is clear that Gutenberg’s Printing Press had a revolutionary impact on the way society receives, copies and transmits it’s information. If the invention is considered through American media theorist Neil Postman’s ‘Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change’ (1998), it is clear that the effect is massive. Postman’s first ideas, that all technological change is a trade off, is obvious regarding the printing press as it has been argued that the invention led to a decline in the handwritten word and the tradition of handing down stories and histories orally (Norman 2004). Postman’s second and third ideas, when related to the printing press, can be seen as entwined:
2) That the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population and
3) Embedded in every new technology there is a powerful idea that is often hidden, raising the valuable question of “what are the consequences of this technology?”
It can be argued that those in society, with the money to operate the printing presses on a large-scale, have a say in what is being printed and circulated to the masses and therefore control ‘the narrative’ being passed down through their copies. This can be seen even in today’s society, with Rupert Murdoch’s massive media conglomerate News Corp being frequently accused of bias in reporting and censorship in their stories (Kehoe 2014). Postman’s fourth “thing we need to know” is that technology is ecological, not addictive, and that each new invention is not just adding to the technological ecological environment, it is completely changing it, just as the printing press did when it was invented in 1440. The media, printing and technological landscapes were forever changed by this one piece of equipment. This massive, defining influence leads us into the fifth idea of Postman’s; that media tends to become “mythic” and a “god-given” right to the masses. The Printing press has certainly fallen into that category, as a society, and as individuals, we take the printed word for granted and expect it to always be accessible.
An example of Murdoch’s News Corp illustrating Postman’s ideas 2 & 3. Credit
Burland, J 2013, ‘Gutenberg’s The Invention’, Gutenberg’s Invention, <online> Viewed 17/08/15 at < http://www.gutenberg.de/english/erfindun.htm>
Burns, R I, 1996, “Paper comes to the West, 800–1400”, in Lindgren, Uta, Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800 bis 1400. Tradition und Innovation (4th ed.), Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, pp. 413–422, ISBN 3-7861-1748-9
Chappell, P 2011, ‘Gutenberg’s press revisited: invention and renaissance in the modern world’, Agora, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 26 – 30.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1980), The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-29955-1
Füssel, S 2001, ‘Gutenberg and today’s media change’, Publishing Research Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 3 – 10.
Kehoe, J 2014, ‘Julia Gillard blasts ‘biased’ Murdoch News Corp’, Australian Financial Review, Oct 28 2014, viewed 18/08/15 at < http://www.afr.com/business/media-and-marketing/publishing/julia-gillard-blasts-biased-murdoch-news-corp-20141027-11ctmj>
Marshall, P 2011, ‘A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet.’ Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-521-17944-7.
Norman, J 2004, ‘2. Transitional Phases in the Form and Function of the Book before Gutenberg’, <online>, viewed 17/08/15 at < http://www.historyofinformation.com/narrative/oral-to-written-culture.php>
Postman, N 1998, ‘Five things we need to know about technological change’, Denver, Colorado, 28th March 1998, viewed 17/08/15 at <http://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/materials/postman.pdf>
Roberts, C H & Skeat, T C, 1983, The Birth of the Codex, London: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-726024-1
Wolf, H-J, 1974, Geschichte der Druckpressen (1st ed.), Frankfurt/Main: Interprint