His invention changed the world: printing and therefore mass communication became much easier on a strike. His technique was known and used in most European countries within ten years after his death. The oldest digital library with thousands of online available books was named after him, an asteroid bears his name, and he is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential people in the history of mankind.
I am talking of Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith who was born in Mainz, Germany, around 1400. He is considered the inventor of modern printing. In fact, he has made the most significant changes in current printing operations, which made printing faster and easier. The new movable type printing played an important role in the development of philosophical, political and religious changes such as the Reformation and the Enlightenment – so important that an American team of researchers proclaimed Gutenberg to ‘Man of the Millennium’ in 1998. And he does deserve this honor: Gutenberg's invention made it possible to print unlimited amounts of newspapers, pamphlets and books. Hence, knowledge could spread rapidly, and via papers, the public opinion could be influenced much easier.
From the smallest parts come the biggest things...
The most important invention of Gutenberg is the printing press. Older printing methods worked with woodcuts. The surface of these woodblocks were covered with ink; a paper was put on top and the ink was being transferred to the paper by rubbing on the backside. With this old method, it was difficult to produce constant pressure and thus uniform color intensity. Searching for a better solution, Gutenberg was inspired by the screw press, and was the first to apply this technique in the printing process.
The most crucial development in the art of printing would seem obvious, but Gutenberg was the first to make the change. Instead of cutting full blocks of text in wood, he split texts into their smallest components; the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. Thanks to this, a correction in the text no longer required a completely new woodcut, but merely a rearrangement of the individual letters ('types'). Frequent letter combinations (like ss, ll or st) were molded on one type to save time and space.
Gutenberg and the Reformation
Gutenberg used his new technique for printing smaller documents like letters of indulgence and calendars, but soon he started to work on a masterpiece: the printing of 180 copies of the Latin Bible. The completion of the required type pieces and the printing itself was very time intensive – it took almost three years before the Bibles were ready – but in comparison, a single clerk could have created only one copy in the same time!
But it was not until Martin Luther, almost a century after, that Gutenberg's technology was actually used for large amount Bible prints. The number of Bible copies that were printed in his time was limited, since they were expensive and mostly written in Latin. The available German translations were kept to the Latin syntax and word order so closely, that they were still hardly readable for Germans. In addition, he clergy wanted to keep their mighty position and forbid people to read or even possess their own Bible. Martin Luther, however, was convinced that the Holy Book should be accessible to everyone. His modern German translation of the New Testament became popular immediately after publication: about half a million copies were sold. Also pamphlets with the famous 95 theses that Luther posted on the church portal in Wittenberg, as well as many other religious pamphlets were widely spread throughout Germany and Europe within a short period of time. Copying in this quantity and rapidity would not have been possible without Gutenberg's printing press, and so it is also thanks to him that the Reformation movement in Europe was able to develop as quickly as it did.
Printing Press and Humanism
Also Humanists were very grateful for Gutenberg's invention. Erasmus of Rotterdam noted with satisfaction that in Italy, the birth place of Humanism, the new technology was being applied successfully to bring books and therefore education among the people. Conrad Celtis, a German humanist, wished that the Germans would take an example from the Italians in this matter. With help of the new book printing technique it should be possible that the Germans would reach the same level of education as the Italians, he claimed. And his wish came true: at the end of the 15th century, new editions of important works from the classical age, such as Cicero's, Virgil's and Ovid's writings found their way in German-speaking countries. Also new works, written in the humanistic spirit, were quickly translated into the German language and were widely disseminated. The humanist movement made reading more and more popular, and the demand for books increased. An interaction between humanist movement and the new printing technology arose, since the latter was continuously being optimized.
For 350 years Gutenberg's invention remained almost untouched. It was not until the 18th century that significant changes have been made to his book printing technique. Even now, in the digital age, Gutenberg's influence is undeniable. Perhaps, various revolutions would not have taken place without him. It is not without reason that Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once wrote: “Lead, when molded into bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into letters.”