Gutemberg and the Power of the Press


It is difficult to pinpoint what the most influential invention that has ever been developed actually is, though Gutenberg’s movable type printing press is certainly up there. No doubt the inventions that have been the most influential tend to be the oldest, such as the domestication of animals, farming, the wheel, and of course the alphabet, and anybody who has played Sid Meyer’s Civilisation will no doubt be familiar with the technology tree, that is that technological developments come about from earlier developments, which in turn come from even earlier ones. For instance, without the development of the wheel, there is no way you are going to be able to build a car (and while, to us, the wheel seems to be a pretty basic invention, it actually isn’t all that easy to work out, especially when you incorporate things like axles, and of course making sure that it doesn’t break apart when you apply loads). Like the wheel, the movable type printing press no doubt thanks to its origins to developments such as the alphabet, writing, and of course literature (because without literature all you are going to be printing are financial ledgers, but then again there are people out there who consider that the only legitimate form of literature is the Annual Report).


The main reason that I am writing this post about Gutemberg, and printing in general, is because when I was in Germany I visited the Gutenberg Museum. Mind you, the main reason I was there was because I wanted to travel by train to the end of the line, and I noticed that the S-Bahn in Frankfurt actually went to the nearby towns and cities. Mind you, the German Railway System, otherwise knowns as Deutsch-Bahn, is so extensive that you can pretty much get to any part of Germany without having to have a car, or even catch a bus (though it seems that not all places outside of Germany are accessible because according to my travel app, the Eurail App, you can no longer get to Prague by train). Anyway, as it turns out, the Gutenberg Museum is here, but considering Mainz was where Gutenberg lived and died, this is not all that surprising. As a museum it was pretty cool, that is except for when I was told off for taking photos (despite there being no signs telling me otherwise, but then again I should have asked – I did so with pretty much every other place I visited), which is probably not surprising considering that there are some pretty old books located in there.


A Museum of Printing
I have already written a review on the Museum on Yelp (I so prefer Yelp over Tripadvisor, but I’ll leave that for another post to explain why), so I won’t try to go over any ground that I have already done so. Further, no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find a photo of the museum. Fortunately, there was one on the Wikipedia entry, which I have to admit is much, much better than any of my photographs. Anyway, I didn’t find the museum all that great, though a part it had to do with getting told off for taking photos (and nobody likes being told off). However, I will mention that the museum is much more than just Gutenberg’s invention. In fact, it explores the whole history of printing right up until the modern-day, and it is a shame that I didn’t take any more detailed notes, but fortunately, you can get a good idea of the collection, and the background, from their website.


The museum itself dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century to celebrate the 500th year of Gutenberg’s birth, and from that time began collecting printing presses and books. It was initially located in the town’s old library, which was also the palace of the Elector of Mainz (the ruler that would form a part of the institution that made up the Holy Roman Empire, and held the title of elector not because he was elected, but because he was entitled to vote for the Holy Roman Emperor). In 1925 Gutenberg’s workshop was reconstructed from wood cuttings, and then as the museum grew it was moved to its current location, Zum Römichen Kaiser, which is located across the square from the Mainz Dom. The building didn’t escape the destruction of World War II, but fortunately, the collection did manage to survive due to being stored in a secure bunker.


As well as the collection (which is strewn over three levels and multiple rooms in these levels), the museum houses the Gutenberg Society, the workshop replica, as well as the administration and restoration workshops. There is also a small cinema that shows a short film on Gutenberg’s revolution, though when we went and watched it happened to be in German. Even though I can sort of speak German, the problem was that my German isn’t that good that I am able to understand a film without subtitles. Also, as I discovered, trying to understand a language that you only have a basic understanding of can be incredibly exhausting.


Gutemburg’s Revolution

To say that the printing press was a revolution is an understatement. Okay, working out how to write things down, and how to create paper and ink to be able to write things down, were also pretty revolutionary. Mind you, the need for more scrolls became ever more urgent with the birth of philosophy:


Just needed an excuse to post this
Anyway, the thing with the pen and paper (or quill, ink, and scroll) was that you needed to write everything by hand, and if you wanted multiple copies then you would have to, well, make multiple copies. In fact, a whole industry arose that simply involved copying scrolls (and many of monasteries during the Middle Ages preserved texts simply by doing just that). As such books were very, very expensive, even if you got the literate slaves to do the copying (because even though they might be slaves, they aren’t necessarily cheap), which meant that only the rich and powerful would have access to them. Of course, if you happened to be a slave to the rich and powerful then no doubt you would also have access to the scrolls. The other thing was that if you were a philosopher or teacher, then you would need to have patrons (and it is interesting that we are seeing this concept reborn in the form of the Patreon Website), which is probably why Socrates never wrote anything down, namely because he eschewed the whole patron system.


However, Gutenberg was not the first person to invent printing – the accolades go to the Chinese. In fact, there were two styles of printing: woodblock and movable type. The movable type was similar to Gutenberg’s invention, though appeared in China during the 12th Century. Woodblock printing is much more primitive in that the book, or picture, is carved out on a single block of wood. While this could speed up the copying of texts, it was still very time consuming creating the wooden blocks. What movable type meant was that you can change the individual letters (or symbols as is the case in Chinese) which is much more practical, and allows for much more flexibility in being able to print text. As for woodblock, that style didn’t necessarily go away, and in fact, a style of art was developed where the artist would carve the image onto the woodblock and then use the block to print pictures – it was a much quicker, and cheaper, way of producing art in bulk.



The thing with woodblocks was that you couldn’t change the woodblock after you have finished using it and needed a separate woodblock for every page. However movable type meant that once you have printed the number of identical pages that you wanted then you could change the block and then print the next batch. Dealing with errors was also another important aspect as if there was an error in the movable type you can simply change it whereas with the woodcut you would effectively have to discard the whole block and start again.


Bring on the Renaissance


Yeah, he looks pretty dodgy.
Ironically, according to Wikipedia that is, Gutenberg actually started out as a bit of a scam artist. Actually, he started out as a blacksmith, which is not surprising because you probably need to have some blacksmithing skills to be able to develop something like a printing press, but before that, he had come up with this mirror which he claimed was able to catch the rays of light from heaven, and he was intending on selling it to the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, severe flooding meant that he couldn’t get there in time, and as a result got into a little bit of trouble with his investors. Actually, a lot of trouble, namely because he was broke, but he solved that by claiming that he had a backup idea, a special type of printing press which you could use to print books much quicker and faster. Actually, it wasn’t Gutenberg’s idea but rather a Dutchman named Laurens Coster (though as we know the Chinese had come up with the idea some two-hundred years before).


Another interesting thing that was happening at the time was that Italy was facing a refugee crisis from the East, namely, the inhabitants of the former Byzantine Empire were fleeing the sack of Constantinople (though that had been happening since the Venetians sacked the city during the Fourth Crusade, though it could be argued that the crusades were just as much about destroying the power of the Eastern Orthodox church as it was about conquering the Holy Land, but that is another story entirely). Anyway, these refugees were bringing lots of books with them, namely the writings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, many of which had been lost in the West. This influx of lost knowledge spurned a movement that has since become known as the Renaissance, but the invention of the printing press made it much easier for the knowledge to be recorded and disseminated – in essence marking the end of the Middle Ages.


Anyway, Gutenburg’s first project was to print a copy of the Bible, called the 42 line Bible, not because he only printing 42 lines (meaning that it probably consisted of a single page) but that a bulk of the pages have 42 lines. Anyway, the Christian Fundamentalists seems to make a really big deal of the fact that the first book that Gutenberg printed was the Bible, however my secularist view of the world suggests that there was nothing Holy or Spiritual about the fact that the first book ever printed using movable type was the Bible (which in fact it wasn’t – see the note on China above), but rather because it was the most common, and well known, book of the time, and he no doubt would have had easy access to it. Sure, he could have printed copies of the letters to his lover, but they would probably be a little personal, and anyway, he didn’t want her husband to find out.


He actually printed something like 180 of these
nother thing about books at this time was that they were works of art – while the bulk of the text would be normal writing, the first letters of a page, and a paragraph, would be intricate pictures. In fact, the whole book would be full of beautiful pictures. However, the thing with the printing press was that it was supposed to speed up printing, which sticking with the medieval tradition didn’t really do. It wasn’t just the difficulties to creating the larger letters (which would all be individually stylised) but also the difficulties of using different colours. The thing is that it wasn’t so much hard, but rather incredibly fiddly, and really slow, which sort of defeated the purpose of creating something to speed up the process. As for colour, well, you had to dry out the page before running it back through the printing press with a different colour, and you had to do that with all the different colours you wanted (and make sure that the images lined up perfectly or else it is back to square one).



Enlightening the Mind

So, the renaissance, along with the printing press, brought about great change to Europe – old ideas and stories, long thought lost, were brought back into circulation, and with that new ideas were born. Suddenly writers were pouring over the Ancient Roman texts, writing advice to nobles on how to attain power and remain in power, or they were studying the astronomical texts and looking to the skies, realising that weren’t actually the centre of the universe. They were also demonstrating that objects of different masses fell at the same speed, and along with that they were writing some of the most beautiful stories (even though the author was literally pining over a woman that had no chance whatsoever of getting involved with).



Another thing that was changing, that the Renaissance brought about, was that people were no longer accepting traditional doctrine as fact. Instead, they were starting to question it, and they were researching in an attempt to find out the truth – in ways that would begin to undermine the powers that be. Mind you, this was a time when the church was actually in decline – the heydays of Pope Innocent III were long behind them, and they had effectively fallen into petty squabbles which resulted in the Great Schism and the Babylonian Captivity – this was a breeding ground for dissent and rebellion, and ripe for the beginnings of the reformation.


There was another thing that happened as well – the printing press. As I mentioned, it made the production, and distribution, of tracts much quicker and easier, something that a little known Monk took advantage of after nailing a bunch of statements to the door of the church at Wurtemburg. Once again, Luther wasn’t the first to challenge the church theologically – there had been outbreaks of sects throughout the history of the church, though until Luther’s time many of them were brutally suppressed. Actually, Luther and his contemporaries didn’t find it easy going either – however even though Luther was put on trial for spreading heresy, the fact that Germany at this time was made up of a collection of city-states and principalities, meant that Luther was able to gain sanctuary with princes who weren’t particularly happy with the church, or the Emperor.



Rise of the Rag

With the cost of producing written works dropping significantly meant that literacy began to increase among the lower classes – when books are expensive to produce the literacy levels will inevitably remain low, namely because the ordinary person would not have access to books. However, as the cost of producing books begins to drop then the ability of the average person to read, namely due to having access to these books, increases. Mind you, the average person still needs to be taught to read, and while it is all well and good to know what the letters and words mean, one still has to be able to comprehend what is being written – which is why English literature is so important. It is not so much learning how to read but learning how to interpret and understand the ideas that the author is putting across – sure lots of people can read, but if one’s ability to read is limited to newspapers and instruction manuals (if the instruction manual is even read) then that is not necessarily an indication of literacy.


With regards to the rise of printing the 16th century saw the development of a range of literature, especially after the thirty years war when peace once again returned to Europe. Firstly we have the rise of libraries, particularly those which were open to the public, and rare and collectible books began to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Of course, the ability to print, and to be able to disseminate information rapidly, and cheaply, brought about the rise of the scientific revolution as the scientific class began to build upon the research of those that came before them and also proceeded to develop a method where answers were developed through repeated experimentation. We also begin to see the rise of complex performances and literature, such as the plays of William Shakespeare and the writings of the likes of Goethe, Dafoe, and of course Milton – being able to print meant that such things could be put down to posterity, and performances could be held more frequently.



So, the rise of printing, and the rise of literature, also brings with it the rise of the pulp novel. Okay, maybe there weren’t as many pulp novels back in those days, but maybe there were – the thing is that only books and novels with staying power continued a print run through to our times (though if you hunt around the Antiquarian bookshops in London you are sure to find some books that you no doubt have never heard of). Also, along came the ‘pocketbook’, namely a book that could fit in one’s pocket – for most of the history books were huge affairs, or simply a bunch of scrolls, the pocketbook, which eventually became the paperback, meant that books could be taken with you on a journey as opposed to being left at home and read in the reading room.


Another interesting thing with literature, and of course the rise of the city and the scientific method, is that things start to speed up – a lot. Literature means that news begins to spread, and as news begins to spread people want to remain up to date with the latest happenings. Mind you, kings and generals have always needed to remain up to date on the movements of the enemies, however, the rise of commercialism meant that the middle class had a stake in that as well – for instance, a merchant needed to know where the best place to sell their goods was, and the scientist needed to keep abreast of what was happening elsewhere. As for the normal literate person, well, they also needed to know what was going on, and to meet this demand came to the newspaper – otherwise known as the daily rag.



Another thing that appeared was the Encyclopedia – a means to attempt to collect all of human knowledge into one place. This feat was initially accomplished by Diderot and d’Alembert, who produced the world’s first encyclopedia. Mind you, for an encyclopedia to contain ‘all’ knowledge would mean that the work would be huge, however, what it did act as was a reference from which one could then go and look for information elsewhere. In fact it is interesting to note that as I grew up the one thing that seemed to be the mainstay of most houses was a set of Encyclopedias – we had the Funk and Wagnalls, but we also had a children’s encyclopedia. Interestingly these encyclopedia companies, such as Britannica (which seems to have been killed by Wikipedia) went beyond encyclopedias as they also produced sets containing what was considered to be the greatest works of literature.


Modern Media

In a way, I have already written about the modern news media, particularly in the day of the internet. Interestingly while things did change, they didn’t change as much until the internet came about – the news cycle pretty much remained the same where we would receive morning and evening updates in the paper and on television (that is if the city had a morning and evening paper – in many cases it would be the paper in the morning and the television news in the evening). Okay, we did have CNN, and Fox News, which created the 24hr news cycle, but that didn’t really come about until the eighties, and in a way, it didn’t morph into the cycle that we have now, particularly since the cable networks are effectively in competition with the internet news sources.


As for books, well interestingly enough books will still come and go – novels and pulp fantasy will either crash and burn, have a time in the limelight and then vanish to the back corners of the secondhand bookshop, or become a classic with endless print runs. Mind you, with the advancement of knowledge in pretty much most fields, textbooks are literally having a shelf life of less than a year, as are the encyclopedias (though they have been subsumed by Wikipedia). While the digital economy has produced e-readers like the kindle, it seems that there is still a great passion for the physical book, as I discovered in Paris – it is much better walking around reading a hard copy of ‘A Movable Feast’ as opposed to a digital version on your phone or tablet – first of all, it drains the power enormously, and secondly, people can’t actually see what you are reading, and from my perspective, a part of the idea of reading a book is so that others can see what you are reading.


Creative Commons License


Gutemberg and the Power of the Press by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Gutemberg Museum By Pedelecs by Wikivoyage and Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gutenburg Bible By Raul654, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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