Johannes Gutenberg’s Information Revolution

Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing with moveable metal type, is a true benefactor of humankind. His innovative application of printing technologies was not only a showcase example of market anarchism, but a greater source of benefit to mankind than state-sponsored technologies can ever hope to be. His is a story not only of innovation, but of immigration, opposition to politically connected interests, and freedom of information.

Remember the Millennium?

Nearly ten years ago – in time for the millennium celebrations – Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1400-1468) was singled out as the greatest inventor of the past 1,000 years by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Life rated his printing of the Bible as the top event of that time period. In addition, the Exlibris news and discussion group (University of California at Berkeley) dubbed him Man of the Millennium.

He did not invent either book printing or moveable type. But his improvements on existing technology changed everything. There were good reasons to celebrate Gutenberg’s innovation – not to mention subsequent related breakthroughs such as (1) offset printing, which transferred images from page-size plates onto paper beginning in 1904, (2) digital printing, which developed in the 1980s, and (3) web-page publication, which developed in the 1990s and was the result of a decision (in 1988) to end the 30-year stranglehold of the U.S. government on Internet development.

Johann Gutenberg
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Johannes Gutenberg

And while some may argue that the origins of the Internet lie in the government-sponsored ARPANET, the ARPANET is yet another example of state-sponsored Frankenstein technology – a relative dead end that did not yield significant benefits until it was released from its state-enforced dungeon to become transformed by the private sector into the World Wide Web.

In a sense, the Web has multiplied the potential of Gutenberg’s original invention: first, Gutenberg made possible the publishing industry, in which scarce resources are concentrated to fund the dissemination of information from relatively few replication centers; the Web and the app economy take it further, making it possible for everyone to become a publishing center.

Fact and Fiction: The Discovery of Printing

Let’s look at what Gutenberg did and didn’t do. He did not invent either book printing or moveable type. In The Gutenberg Bible, James Thorpe, former director of the Huntington Library, points out that the earliest known wood-block printing of a book took place in 9th century China with the 16-foot-long roll of the Diamond Sutra. To produce it, entire pages were carved into flat wooden blocks that were inked and pressed onto paper rolls.

Furthermore, as early as the 11th century, printers in China (and Korea) were experimenting with pieces of moveable type made of baked clay. That invention, however, did not endure in East Asia because too many distinctive pieces of ‘type’ (the baked-clay letters) had to be created to print a book. In contrast to the 26-letter English alphabet, for example, the Chinese language uses approximately 40,000 ideographs – far too many (at the time) to offer any labor-saving advantages through printing.

Copying Books by Hand

In Europe until the time of Gutenberg, books were copied by hand, usually on some type of parchment (the skin of an adult sheep, goat, or cow) or on vellum (skin from a newborn calf). During the early Middle Ages, most of this copying took place at monasteries in a scriptorium, but by the 13th century, busy manuscript-copying establishments were located in major cities – usually near the early universities where books were in demand. Wherever manuscript copies were made, however, they contained errors.

The quill pens used by copyists – usually made of goose feathers – required frequent refills from ink pots, and the tedium of copying led to errors consisting of repeated or omitted portions of text. Even the introduction of wood-block printing in Europe during the late 14th and early 15th Centuries (usually for illustrations) offered few advantages. For example, wood-block carvings were laborious to create and could be ruined with a single false stroke of the carver’s knife. They also wore out quickly and could not produce clear imprints for very long.

And while it is true that manuscript copyists used abbreviations to save time, new books still required about a year to produce. Not surprisingly, they were very expensive. As a result, the literacy rate was low – only 30% in some English towns during the 15th century.

The Printing Press in Action

The idea of printing with reusable pieces of durable, moveable type held definite advantages for Europeans. Since the Latin alphabet had only 23 basic letters, only a limited range of metal pieces of type had to be cast and replicated. Once created, these pieces of type could be arranged into orderly rows and pages of text on a printing forme. The letters were inked up, and damp paper or parchment was lowered onto them to receive the ink impression.

The result was hundreds of nearly identical copies of books. Once a set of pages were printed, the pieces of type could be reassembled again and again to print other pages and books until they finally wore out after many uses. All things considered, printing with re-usable, metal type yielded savings in labor and cost, greater accuracy and consistency in the final product, and a remarkable increase in the volume of books available.

A Market-Driven Process

The invention of printing, however, did not occur in a vacuum. Like any other product, it was subject to market conditions to which Gutenberg responded in an entrepreneurial way. We already have seen how the Western alphabet – with its limited set of letters – played a supporting role in the success of European printing.

To this, we can add the availability of paper in 15th century Europe – a cost-effective substitute for parchment and vellum. According to Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst (A Short History of the Printed Word), the process of making paper from plant fibers was discovered in China in the 2nd century. It spread to the Middle East in the 8th century (where it was improved), and the Moors brought it to Spain (11th century). By the late 13th century, a paper mill that used linen and rag fibers was operating in the Italian town of Fabriano . From there, it spread rapidly through Europe – just in time for Gutenberg’s invention.

Gutenberg was responsible for the print process itself, and his story has been outlined by Christopher de Hamel in The Book: A History of the Bible. As a stepping stone to the invention of printing, however, Gutenberg may have developed a mechanical-stamping process in the late 1430s. Details of his metal-stamping process, however, are unclear, and what little we know is based on the much-debated record of a lawsuit that was filed after the death of one of his business partners.

The scale of the Gutenberg Bible project was astonishing for its time.Nonetheless, it appears that while living in Strassburg, Gutenberg and his partners intended to mass-produce small, inexpensive convex mirrors by using Gutenberg’s metal-stamping process. They planned to sell the mirrors to pilgrims visiting

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