Johannes Gutenberg’s Information Revolution

Johannes Gutenberg was born into the noble family of Mainz, Germany in c. 1394. A former stone-cutter and goldsmith, he is best known for inventing the Gutenberg press. He died on 3rd February 1468.

The race to become the first person to perfect the use of printing with moveable type was so heated by the middle of the 15th century, that Johannes Gutenberg worked on his invention in secret. He was one of several print masters simultaneously on the verge of perfecting the techniques of printing, but the first person to successfully demonstrate the practicability of movable type.

Gutenberg developed individual lettered blocks for his press which were made from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. This combination melted together easily, and could be cast well in the moulds, while remaining durable enough for repeated use on the press. By carving the mirror image of each letter in relief on a small block, Gutenberg could ensure that each letter printed clearly. He was also able to move each piece of type around to make new words as often as he needed to, rather than having to re-carve whole words each few times he wanted to print a document.
With money loaned to him by his business partners Andreas Dritzehn and Johannes Fust, Gutenberg built the first large Gutenberg Press. By September 30, 1452, Guttenberg’s first complete Bible was published – becoming the first book ever to be published in one individual volume of bound pages. So exclusive were these early Gutenberg Bibles, that when one sold at the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair, it cost the equivalent of three years’ pay for the average clerk.

The desire across the world for accessible books and papers was such that the idea of the printing press and movable type spread rapidly. Before 1500 some 2500 European cities had acquired presses of their own. Writing his Sartor Resartus in 1833, Thomas Carlyle said of the inventor of the printing press, “He who first shortened the labour of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.”

The impact of the press on the world’s levels of general knowledge and education was huge. Suddenly, books could be printed, not just in ones or twos, but in hundreds and thousands at a time, at a fraction of their previous cost, thereby making them available to more people. Eager for information, the higher and middle classes were keener to learn to read and write than before, and education was embraced on a scale never previously witnessed. Libraries could now store greater quantities of information at much lower cost, and scientists and inventors could spread their ideas faster; the speed and development of new drugs and innovations across Europe and beyond was accelerated greatly.

Gutenberg and his fellow printing press inventors, such as William Caxton in England, and many others, without doubt launched an “information revolution” on a par with the Internet today.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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