Welcome! You are now reading words shaped by a revolutionary technology that, in less than a lifetime, changed the way world news, education, religion, scientific research, and public discourse were conveyed in print.
Almost five hundred years before the invention of computers, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press transformed access to all kinds of information and opinion, and the way we use language. Before the printing press, writers could spell English words any way that worked, in whatever dialect they spoke. The languages of law, medicine, science, and government were French and Latin. Standardization of spelling, punctuation, and other features of the printed language were to a large degree created by printers out of need.
Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg
Printing wasn’t a new idea when Gutenberg debuted his machine-printed Bible in 1454. The Chinese had used woodblock printing for six hundred years already, and their printed money and playing cards reached Europe in the 13th century. But Chinese woodblock printing was slow, producing only a few dozen pages per day. Gutenberg’s printing press was so fast and cheap that European presses had produced 20 million copies by 1500 and an estimated 200 million copies by 1600.
Gutenberg, a goldsmith, was not the only fellow developing a press in Europe at the time; his innovation wasn’t so much the idea of the press, as putting together materials that had recently become available to create a leap in efficiency and reliability. The Chinese, Koreans, and others had also tried movable type, even some made of metal rather than wood. But it was Gutenberg, a professional metalsmith, who first combined lead, tin, and antimony to create a metal that would melt at low temperatures, cast well in molds, and become durable type. He invented a new kind of matrix – the frame that holds blocks of type for printing; this made possible the easy assembly of blocks of print. He created a new ink from soot and linseed oil that transferred better than the Chinese water-based ink, and of course, the innovation most responsible for his ensuing fame – the press itself.
This woodcut from 1568 shows the left printer removing a page from the press while the one on the right inks the text blocks. Such a duo could reach 14,000 hand movements per working day, printing ca. 3,600 pages in the process.
Gutenberg’s press was based on already well-known devices – screw presses used in making wine, paper, or linen; one surface attaches to the end of a huge screw, which is turned to bring the two surfaces together. Gutenberg adapted the press in many ways, most importantly creating a sliding table on which sheets of paper could quickly be changed. He mounted the matrix holding the type on the screw, covered it with ink, and cranked it by hand until it pressed the paper, which needed to be slightly wet to get a proper impression. His machine was labor-intensive yet an incredible advance beyond woodblock printing. In his first run, he produced 200 copies of his Bible, of which about 50 remain. They were on sale by 1455, three years after he borrowed the money for the project.
A paper codex of the acclaimed 42-line Bible, Gutenberg's major work
By 1500, there were hundreds of presses in European cities and the way humanity related to printed words began to change. Scientific journals became possible, the first ones consisting of reprinted letters exchanged between scientists, and the entire industry of referencing and building on other scholars’ work, the global conversation, arrived. People everywhere became potentially able to read and educate themselves in their own time, when previously knowledge could mainly only come from a teacher or priest in a group setting.
And finally, the answer to that question – why is English spelling so messed up? Because in 1476, only twenty years after Gutenberg’s invention, the printer William Caxton set up a press in London and realized that he needed to decide how to spell everything since English was not used as an official language at the time. Everyone spelled English words however they sounded, in whatever dialect they spoke. Why Caxton decided to spell “f” with a “gh” and “i before e, except after c” is another story. Thanx, Will. Let’s just be thankful that technology eventually gave birth to automated spell-checking.
“What gunpowder did for war the printing press has done for the mind.” – Wendell Phillips
"The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, sometimes one forgets which it is." – E. F. Schumacher
“The press is not only free, it is powerful. That power is ours. It is the proudest that man can enjoy. It was not granted by monarchs, it was not gained for us by aristocracies; but it sprang from the people, and, with an immortal instinct, it has always worked for the people.” – Benjamin Disraeli
How did you like the episode?
Get the word out!
Love Curious Peoples? Your friends will too.