Happy birthday to the printing press ... it was this week 558 years ago that the first Gutenberg bible returned from the binders. It may not have actually been the first book printed with moveable type, (the Chinese had developed moveable type 400 years prior and discarded the technology) but it was the first book printed with movable type in Europe and it spread rapidly, influencing, perhaps even catalysing, three major intellectual revolutions: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Modern Science.
In 1450, there were approximately 100,000 books in Europe, each one of them painstakingly hand-written.
Fifty years later, in 1500, it is estimated that there were were 1000 printing shops in Europe, which had produced 35,000 titles and 20 million copies.
Gutenberg's rudimentary press, fashioned from a wine press, is arguably the most important invention of the modern era. His press made the Reformation possible by disseminating Martin Luther's reforming ideas.
By 1520, around one third of all literature printed in Germany was based on Luther's work, and was hugely influential in bringing on the Reformation.
Similarly, the printed word liberated knowledge via the distribution of books, which enabled ideas and knowledge to travel across national boundaries easily.
Universities were also emerging at that time, and the collection of texts became a measure of these centres of knowledge.
Moveable type printing was curiously invented almost 500 years prior to Gutenberg by the Chinese Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng, who used baked clay for his movable type. Metal type replaced the clay within a century but the complexity of the Chinese language and the vast amount of characters prevented an efficient system from evolving and the invention dropped from use, only to be "reinvented" half a millennium later on the other side of the world.
In time to come, history may well credit Gutenberg with having begun the information age.
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