The Printing Press: Invention, History & Importance

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Invention of the Printing Press: Meaning & History

Printing Press: Creation of a method to reproduce several copies of texts and images on paper or other materials.

What was the Invention of the Printing Press?

The invention of the printing press comprises the creation of a method for reproducing various copies of texts and images on paper or other materials, such as parchment or vellum, using movable type of wood or metal.

The types (could be letters or signs) were small stamps that were carved or melted one by one. Then, they were placed on wooden supports to form the texts of the book. On a table with two rails the blank page was slid, the supports with the types covered in ink were placed on top and a press was used to transfer the text onto the page. Once printed, the letters could be reused to form new texts.

The invention of the printing press is attributed to the German goldsmith and blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), who developed the movable type printing press in Mainz, present-day Germany, between 1435 and 1440.

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Gutenberg counted on the collaboration of Johann Fust, who lent him the necessary money to carry out his project, and Peter Schöfer (the former’s nephew), who was in charge of the business when Gutenberg was unable to repay the loan.

The first books printed with Gutenberg‘s invention were the 1449 Missal of Constance and the Bible (called the forty-two line Bible). Of the latter, one hundred and eighty copies were published from 1455: forty-five on parchment and one hundred and thirty-five on paper.

The Printing Press: Invention, History & Importance

Gutenberg movable type printing replica.

Why was the Printing Press Invented?

In the fourteenth century, in Europe, books were copied by hand, so they had to be made one by one. Publishing a book was time consuming, very expensive, and therefore the number of existing books was limited.

As the copying of books was made in monasteries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly on their production. The monks, who were among the few people of the time who could read and write, worked many hours a day copying and illustrating books, which ended up in the libraries of the monasteries or royal palaces. Therefore, only monks and members of the royal courts had access to the books.

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Around 1400 printing technique called woodcut began to be used in Europe, which was already used in China since the 5th century AD. This consisted of carving texts and images on wooden blocks, which were then smeared with ink and pressed against blank sheets of paper.

This method was used mainly to reproduce religious images and card games. However, it was time consuming and expensive, because although carved wood blocks allowed for printing multiple copies, the wood was easily deformed or rotted.

With all these limitations in mind, around 1435 Gutenberg set out to invent a method that would allow more books to be printed in less time. He also sought to improve the quality of printing.

Another reason for the invention of movable type printing was the opening of the first secular universities, such as those in Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge.

Since monasteries controlled access to books, university students needed a new way to get textbooks. Gutenberg certainly took this growing demand for books into account when he set out to devise his printing method.

Printing Press: Monks Illustration

Illustration showing copyist monks at work in a monastery dedicated to creating books.

Importance of Printing in History

The invention of the printing press had very important consequences in the history of Western culture:

  • It made possible the multiplication of books towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern AgeGutenberg‘s invention spread rapidly and within a few years the number of printing presses in Western Europe multiplied.
  • It expanded the number of potential readers by multiplying the number of books and reducing the cost they had until then. In this way, the books became more accessible.
  • Knowledge began to be available to a greater number of people. This supposed a democratization of the knowledge that the church and the monarchies had controlled until then.
  • It allowed European authors of the Renaissance (poets, essayists, philosophers) to have the opportunity to spread their creations, ideas and proposals through books. In this way, the culture of Western Europe spread to different parts of the world, especially after the arrival of Columbus in America (1492) and Vasco da Gama in India (1498).

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