The Culture First Look

On this day: In 1455, Gutenberg pressed 'print' on printing revolution

More than 550 years ago, businessman Johannes Gutenberg hit on an idea that would up revolutionizing the world – just as the digital revolution is fundamentally altering communication today. 

A businessman intent on making money in a world dominated by the Catholic Church, Johannes Gutenberg created, instead, a revolution – and sowed the seeds for many more.

February 23, 1455 has been cited as the date Mr. Gutenberg began to print the first edition of his eponymous Bible. The idea for the printing blocks came from Asia, where the Chinese had invented a printing technique almost a millennium before. His ink was a concoction that blended traditional ink with oil, helping it flow and transfer from printing blocks to paper. The press itself, meanwhile, was the type of screw press familiar to farmers across the continent, more commonly used for pressing olives or grapes. 

To this motley assortment of preexisting ideas, Gutenberg added an important innovation: movable type, the first in the Western world. He drew on the skills he had acquired growing up in a family of skilled craftsmen to produce letter molds from a metal alloy. The molds were durable, and could withstand hundreds of printings. Arranging and rearranging these letters in a type tray, he produced pages from the Bible and began to run off copies, far faster than previous scribes or publishers could do by hand or using full-page blocks of type.

As he had hoped, Gutenberg’s invention found a receptive audience in the growing middle class of the period. This literate class, frustrated with the limited assortment of hand-copied books available, was more than willing to pay for a printed book. And starting with the Bible, a book the Catholic Church had made familiar to almost every European, may have reassured Gutenberg that he would never run out of clients.

In fact, even before Gutenberg had finished printing his set of some 200 illustrated Latin Bibles, eager customers had bought up every last copy, according to LiveScience.

Gutenberg himself died poor, following a lawsuit by his business partner that apparently stripped him of nearly everything he had. But by inaugurating the era of mass-produced books, Gutenberg fundamentally altered the distribution of information, just as the digital revolution is changing the way we produce and disseminate knowledge today.

"Hardly an aspect of life remained untouched," historian and travel writer John Man writes in his book "The Gutenberg Revolution," which frames printing and the internet as two of the four turning points in human communication over the past 5,000 years (the other two being writing itself and the alphabet). "If rulers could bind their subjects better, with taxes and standardised laws, subjects now had a lever with which to organise revolts. Scholars could compare findings, stand on each other's shoulders and make better and faster sense of the universe. Gutenberg's invention made the soil from which sprang modern history, science, popular literature, the emergence of the nation-state, so much of everything by which we define modernity."

Printing helped Martin Luther disseminate the "Ninety-Five Theses" that heralded the Protestant Reformation. It gave scientists like Galileo Galilei the opportunity to share their findings with a vast community. And it created the knowledge base that facilitated inventions like the Internet.

And though the digital revolution – with its instant access to news and books, as well as modern information-sharing formats like email, video, and instant-messaging – may have fundamentally altered the balance of communication, Gutenberg’s invention won’t be obsolete any time soon, many book-lovers argue.

"Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit," Leah Price noted in a 2012 essay for The New York Times Book Review.

Sales of printed books have lost some ground to digital ones – but, overall, signal resilience. Sixty-three percent of Americans read at least one paper book in the past year, according to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center.