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Innovative History: The Printing Press

As we’ve seen in the previous installments of my series, innovation has compounded as humanity has progressed. With each new innovation, society has grown and adapted in unimaginable ways since we first appeared on Earth. Humans have learned to communicate through the development of language, sustain larger populations through agriculture, and work together to expand the collective knowledge through the division of labour. In this fourth installment, I’ll be exploring the impact that Gutenburg’s printing press had on the spread of knowledge and information.

Though Gutenburg’s iteration of the printing press from around 1440 is most often cited as the first, that’s far from the case. Printing presses had been used in China since 1040 and the oldest existing book made using a printing press was created in Korea around 1377. Gutenberg was hardly the first to invent the printing press, but his version made printing more efficient and accessible. It was also particularly well suited to printing the Latin alphabet. Using movable type (individual characters set on a plate rather than a single plate engraved with characters) was also not a new invention, it was a feature that earlier East Asian printing presses used but it was more costly based on the languages that they were printing. Korean and Chinese are both logographic writing systems, meaning that individual characters represent a whole word rather than in phonographic writing systems like English where characters represent sounds. Modern Chinese uses around 20,000 individual characters whereas the largest Latin character alphabet is Slovenian with 46 individual characters. Based on the written languages alone, a moveable type printing press was much more economical in Europe. As a goldsmith by trade, Gutenberg introduced letterpunches (individual character stamps) that could be quickly produced by pouring lead alloy into moulds, further improving efficiency and cost.

Before the printing press was brought to Europe, books were most often manually copied by Monks, and because of how much time it took to make a copy of a book they were expensive and inaccessible to anyone outside of the wealthiest of the upper class. It also meant that these books were most often copies of religious texts written in Latin, making books even more inaccessible to the masses. Besides extremely low literacy rates among the majority of the population, those that could read and write often couldn’t read Latin. When the printing press was introduced, it meant that a larger variety of books could now become available at a much lower cost. Books and the knowledge they contained now became widely available to the middle and upper classes. 

Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for the democratization and worldwide dissemination of information, which led Europeans into a new era of scientific discovery, religious reformation, philosophical thought and economic revolution. It empowered people to think critically, disrupt the status quo and dream of a better life. It gave individual voices the power to be heard across continents and spread their revolutionary ideas to the masses. In many ways, the printing press has democratized information like the internet has. As you’ll see in later posts, without the printing press books wouldn’t be widely available to spread the information contained in their pages and encourage the intellectual progression of the individual. In the next post, I’ll explore the Protestant Reformation and how Martin Luther made use of the printing press to spread his new religious ideas and founded a new branch of Christianity based on empowering the individual.

We often work on projects where the goal is getting the right information into the hands of the right people at the right time. When we’re not taking the power of the internet and modern technology for granted, we’re always exploring new and more efficient ways for humans to share information. From document management process improvement and cloud migrations to building virtual collaboration space in the metaverse, we’d love to hear from you about your specific challenges.



About the author

Sara Richards is our Social Media Coordinator and Visual UI Designer based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a background in industrial design and sociology and is a recent graduate from the University of Alberta. In her free time she loves to do film photography and snuggle with her cat, Lasagna. Sara is passionate about putting the fun in functional to design new and interesting things. Follow her on instagram!

About the artist

Tayson Martindale is a cartoonist and graphic novelist from Edmonton, Alberta. He loves storytelling and by far his favourite way to tell a story is through the medium of comics. His first graphic novel 'BOX BOY' was released in 2018 and he is excitedly anticipating the release of his next book in 2022. You can find him on instagram and facebook!

He writes “Reading this article about the history and progression of the printing press really reminded me of how important and valuable books are-- how they are doors to so many things (education, understanding, inspiration, communication, development, community, on and on), so the illustration depicts someone moving forward in a place they otherwise wouldn't be able to by walking across a bridge of pages.”



Additional Resources

The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward

Information Technology and Economic Change: the Impact of the Printing Press  

How the Postal System and the Printing Press Transformed European Markets