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How the Printing Press Dismantled (and Rebuilt) Society | by Danielle Jae Jaramillo | August, 2022

Dissecting transformative historical innovations

A woodcut depicting from left to right a compositor, a puller, and a beater. 1568. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

IIit’s difficult to understate the impact the printing press made throughout history. Can you even begin to imagine what life would be like if you had the information what not a Google search away? None of the technologies that make up the internet would even exist if Renaissance-era printers gave up at the first hurdle. This article covers how printing came to be, and dissects the factors behind its disruptive effect on society.

While books existed prior to the printing press and its predecessors, they were a luxury reserved for the literate elites. The materials required, particularly the type and caliber of writing surface needed for writing, were expensive and resource-intensive to produce.

Books were painstakingly written by hand, for which there was a short supply of people who could read and write. The water-based inks commonly used for these books were corrosive and slowly ate away at the parchment or paper. All this combined resulted in a product that was neither practical nor accessible for regular people.

Since the majority of people were illiterate, their sources of information for all aspects of life were controlled by a select few with a vested interest in censoring information that threatened their control over society (think monarchs, religious figures… religious figures who were basically monarchs, etc.). Just a handful of wealthy individuals could hold monopolies over the writing and production of books, the dissemination of knowledge, and ultimately the poor staying poor.

The first iteration of printing was woodblock printing, originating in China during the Tang dynasty in around 200AD. The text to be printed was written on a sheet of paper, glued face down on a block of wood, and the characters were engraved using a knife. Each block could then be reused to print several copies of that page of text.

Although faster and better positioned for mass production than writing by hand, this early form of woodblock printing was still quite time-consuming because each page of a book required a carved block. Nevertheless, woodblock printing was extremely efficient for the mass production of things like receipts, tags, and official documents.

Moveable type was invented roughly 1000 years later in Song dynasty China, in response to the shortcomings of woodblock printing. Rather than carving an entire block for every single page of the book, a reusable block (called a “type”) was carved for each linguistic character.

This way, printers could simply assemble each page as needed, rather than writing and carving a block for each page. While this was a significant process innovation for book printing, woodblocks were still cheaper and more durable than movable types. Moreover, written Chinese required thousands of types, so movable type was not efficient enough to overtake woodblock printing.

Despite its failure to take off in East Asia, movable type slowly spread through Eurasia before reaching Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s. Whereas Chinese printmakers needed thousands of types to put together a single book, European printmakers only needed 290 or so types to fully cover the Latin alphabet and other local languages. As such, Gutenberg successfully adapted movable type to Europe, with a few important additions.

Gutenberg’s types were made of a durable metal alloy that was much stronger than the wood, clay, and metal types from East Asia. The commonly used water-based inks were not suitable for the metal alloy types as the ink simply slid off them before printing. Thus, Gutenberg invented an oil-based ink that was thick enough to adhere to his types but could transfer well to parchment or paper.

The press itself was based on wine and oil presses, and ensured a firm and even distribution of pressure when printing. Previously, letters had been individually stamped by hand, or an impression of the page had been rubbed into the writing surface (so only one side could be used).

Now, the press allowed printers to speed up the process by pressing multiple letters at once. Printing with the press also meant that both sides of the paper could be used. This way, printing with Gutenberg’s press was faster, cheaper, and adapted for mass production – value propositions that none of the pre-existing production methods could offer.

Disruptive innovation is a type of innovation that transforms an industry or market by claiming the low end of the market segment and moving upmarket over time, or creating an entirely new market segment in the existing market. Innovations that shake up incumbents are not always disruptive, as disruptive innovations must have an enabling technology, an innovative business model, and a coherent value network.

Gutenberg’s press, which was a new combination of existing technologies, enabled the economic mass production of books. However, the press was simply a new gadget until printers could establish a network of distributors.

When the first printers eventually reached Venice they began selling their wares (books and news pamphlets) to merchant captains. These pieces, particularly news pamphlets, would then be copied by local printers and distributed to other towns. As such, the enabling technology of the printing press made it profitable for printers and merchant ships to pursue the distribution of information.

Additionally, these printed wares were not intended for the wealthy elites, who since time immemorial had been the target audience of written work. Rather, printed books were made to be low-end alternatives for those who could not afford to own copies handwritten on parchment or vellum. Given the cheaper price and distribution network that had been established by the first generation of printers, the business models of these printers created an entirely new segment of consumers.

Overall, the printing press was well-positioned to move upmarket and outperform traditional incumbents because the technology was feasible, printers were able to establish a network that was profitable for everyone involved, and there was a large segment of people who wanted to read but could cannot afford to purchase from the previous incumbents.

Gutenberg was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church was one of the first institutions to take on the printing press, as they saw the newer and more standard Bibles as a symbol of their authority.

Ironically, Gutenberg’s press is perhaps best known for fueling the Protestant Reformation and weakening the Catholic Church, not strengthening it. The democratization of literacy and reading meant that most people could afford to have their own copies of the Bible. Given that they could read independently and were no longer reliant on another person to read and interpret texts for them, people could form their own opinions about religion.

It’s also worth noting that since it became commonplace to own personal copies of the Bible, demand grew for religious texts translated into local languages, not the archaic Latin of scholars and the wealthy.

Nevertheless, many still could not read or afford a personal copy of the Bible. Both pro- and anti-Catholic propaganda catered to these audiences with pamphlets and flyers printed with images and drawings depicting their respective ideologies. These would be the early beginnings of graphic design on a commercial scale.

Once printmakers were able to print drawings in books, the impact of the printing press spread to science. Printing enabled the spread of knowledge and ideas because scientific texts could be published faster, in larger volumes, and with fewer errors. Although printing did not democratize scientific knowledge the same way it did for literature, it facilitated the development of scientific methodology, journals, and peer review.

Today, printed books are on the plateau of productivity. There are plenty of ways to read written material (if you’re reading this on paper, I’ll eat my hat). Like the handwritten books that came before the press, printed books are arguably becoming more of a creature comfort than a necessity.

What’s interesting about printing is that it hasn’t been discontinued, despite how far other technologies have come since then. Instead, printing has been adapted and has proliferated in other industries like packaging, advertising, fashion design, and so on and so forth. It’s for this reason that Gutenberg’s press still holds relevance as one of the defining innovations that shaped human society into what it is today.

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