Johannes Gutenberg, or as his friends liked to call him ‘Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg’, was the pioneer responsible for the revolutionary ‘printing press’ system that would go on to have enormous ramifications in Europe and then the broader world. The procedure now required to print was relatively straightforward:
- First, inking the type matrix with leather balls.
- Paper placed against the ‘tympan’ to be held in place by small pins.
- Tray closed, paper between ‘frisket’ and the ‘tympan’.
- Paper rolled under the ‘platen’, pressure applied via lever.
- Rolled back out, the paper was taken from between the tray.
Prior to this groundbreaking method, the established technique of producing print media was either hand written or made with the hand operated block method, which were both laborious, slow, and expensive. Now the process could be done with just a few comparatively quick instructions. The printing press wasn’t developed overnight however; Gutenberg leveraged an assortment of both his own and established designs and methods in an act of remediation, as Proff. Jay Bolter remarked. An accomplished blacksmith, Gutenberg developed his own metal letterpress matrix’s which allowed characters to be mass produced, arranged and grouped endlessly to achieve desired words and sentences.
To facilitate this, he cast the characters individually with a unique alloy of molten tin, lead, and some other additions to create a quick cooling typeface that would also survive thousands of presses if needed, and so the ‘movable type’ process was born. His process of casting individual metal types could produce an estimated 4,000 letters a day. Adorning the type was a perfected oil-based ink that stuck well to the metal ‘punches’ (seen in above diagram) and dried print quickly which was instrumental in facilitating the expeditious printing process. The main factor making this a mechanical printing system is attributable to the screw press that Gutenberg adapted from it’s original purpose of making wine, which he modified into a simple pull-able lever that pressed down on the matrix to imprint the paper and leave a relief.
These innovations all culminated in a system that could efficiently and speedily create between 3,200 and 3,600 impressions a day, greatly outpacing the 2,000 that the block printing method could muster. The printing press was a force of social constructivism, as Brian Street would argue, as it emerged from and helped usher in the ‘literate age’, as Marshall McLuhan once claimed. On that note, the phenomenon of the printing press neatly demonstrates McLuhan’s proclamation that ‘the medium is the message’. Contributing to, and benefiting from, the emergence of an educated middle class desiring to experience literature as a leisurable activity and as a source of information lead to the widespread production and adoption of books in Europe. Books subsequently emerged as the first form of mass media, and a new communication method. As such, ideas, beliefs; information: they were all now distributable, archivable, and referenceable. Once only available to the literate few in the bourgeoisie class, books were now cheaper due to their mass manufacturing and as side-effect, texts were now easier to read due to a standardization of font, writing and grammar. Notably, the Bible was also now freely accessible in the form of Gutenberg’s own magnum opus: the 42-line ‘Gutenberg Bible’.
Education was revolutionized, as now compendiums with information from a variety of sources could assist an educator or inform an eager student compelled to discover the world and it’s content at their own pace, changing the student/teacher dynamic from a strict master/pupil didactic relationship. Noted historian Elizabeth Eisenstein rightly regards the printing press as an indisputable factor in the success’ of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the state of modern scientific and scholarly understandings. While one of Neil Postman’s ‘five things…’ states that ‘technological change is not additive’, thankfully as a result of the printing press knowledge now was. Information, notably scientific, was much less likely to be simply forgotten or lost. With the advent of books, this knowledge was no longer, as Eisenstein said, ”…subject to the cycle of rapid decay and loss.”
However, there are arguably some drawbacks that come with such a watershed invention. Not everyone could just show up with something they’d written and get it printed, there was still a need to be a reputable author and go through a publisher. Additionally, there can be criticization of the ease with which errors or incorrect information was so easily circulated and perpetuated. A ‘Second Edition’ of a nonfiction book was rarely published within a year of the initial release, and so misinformation would be hard to quash and buying an updated edition mightn’t always have been an option. First editions, practically, lost value as more updated revisions surfaced that highlighted flaws. For better or worse, copyright law was soon created to grant exclusive publishing rights to certain printers, and this as a concept has dominated the literary and artistic world ever since. Printing presses also weren’t run ‘by the people, for the people’. The bourgeoisie class still arguably controlled output and publishing, and the advent of mass media also brought with it some of the first instances of mass propaganda. Consequently, strong feelings of colonialism and patriotism were achieved, as well as the spread of capitalism. The Vatican continued to make bank by selling indulgences with the aid of the printing press, as well as issue propaganda of their own to counter the message of Martin Luther.
However, it’s worth noting some of the detriments, like the Church propaganda, are circumstantial and can’t be blamed on the medium, as they aren’t reflective of the invention as a whole. Observably, we can safely say that the benefits afforded by the printing press far outweigh the disadvantages. Despite being the culmination of various established combined with new components, it irreversibly molded the course of human history. It enabled revolutions, established industries, and allowed broader education the world over.
Martin Luther believed the printing press was God-given. Obviously, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and the medium genuinely was the message.
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