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This Week in Tech History: The Gutenberg Bible and Printing Press

One of Gutenberg's Bibles

This Week in Tech History is a weekly column looking back at a significant technological or scientific achievement throughout the course of history, and examining the outcome it has on modern society and industry.

This week in history, on the 24th of August, it is thought that Johannes Gutenberg finished a completed copy of his famous 42-line Bible, which has since been regarded as one of the most important works in the history of the printed word. Important to Christian and literary heritage, the Gutenberg Bible also marks a turning point in history which had profound effects on the world politically, philosophically and technologically, which we feel today in its greatest offspring: the Internet.

The Dark Ages

Before there was ever the printed word, there were scribes in both the West and the East. Through their tireless care and devotion, precious pieces of the ancient past have survived to see the modern world. Handwritten manuscripts, impeccably penned, tattered and worn with the passage of time sat upon the scribal desk, copied letter for letter with meticulous precision.

Thanks to the efforts of these learned men, ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian works have survived long after the death of their authors who have often slipped during this time into obscurity.

A quintessential example of a scribe was Saint Bede, a monk who lived between the seventh and eighth centuries. Widely known as “the Father of English History”, Bede serves as a precious link to that country’s ancient past which is hidden in shadow from the eyes of the modern historian.

St. Bede in his monastery

St. Bede in his monastery

Penning with his own hand works like the Historia ecclesiastica, Bede went about the task of copying down ancient works word for word inside voluminous “Codices”, a recent innovation at the time which had come to replace the antiquated scroll as the preferred medium for storing books and records.

Bede was uniquely privileged in this respect, for he had access to what was perhaps the greatest library on the English continent at that time. In the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery, where the scribe carried out his duties, there was a collection of about two-hundred books. And for this collection which is extremely modest by modern reckoning, Bede’s monastery was highly esteemed as a center for education.

It’s understandable, then, why books were not to be found in the house of the common man. They were so scarce and valuable, that they were treated with reverence and protected dutifully. Thus, it is an inaccuracy that the church at that time was responsible for stifling the intellectual climate – indeed, it was patrons of the church like Bede who ensured that fine literature and works of philosophy were preserved and passed down.

But it would certainly have been disastrous to distribute such scarce and irreplaceable volumes to the hands of the laity, and so the books were locked within such places, and many normal men never saw a book in all their lives.

The invention of movable type

More than 700 years after Bede, another man on the same continent was busy creating a machine that would change the fate of everybody. Johannes Gutenberg was a very clever man, to say the least, and using existing technologies such as the screw press and flat plane, he developed the machine that we now call ‘the printing press’.

Gutenberg’s printing press was an incalculably faster and more economic method of reproducing written information. In the time that it would take for a scribe to copy a handful of pages manually, Gutenberg’s press could stamp out thousands, all perfect, without mistakes or differences between them.

Gutenberg's printing press

Gutenberg’s printing press

Some challenge the notion that Gutenberg invented movable type, since similar technologies already existed in China. But this observation is not really fair – while there were indeed methods that could be used to reproduce the written word in Asia about seventy years before Gutenberg came along, these methods were very cumbersome, difficult, and extremely expensive.

The Asian counterpart to the printing press was a novelty, not a practical technology, and with alphabets containing thousands of individual characters, the Asian languages have never been conducive to printing, and it was not until the digital age that reproducing these alphabets became comparably simple.Separated from this innovation by thousands of miles, and a nearly impenetrable cultural and linguistic barrier, the invention of the Chinese had no influence on Gutenberg, who could not have been aware that it even existed.

Thus, it is both safe and fair to credit Gutenberg with the invention of movable type, especially since it was his invention that lived on to change the course of history.

Gutenberg’s Bible

Besides his printing press, Gutenberg is best known for one specific item produced by it: the 42-line Gutenberg Bible.

Using the text of the Latin vulgate – for the Bible had not yet been translated into the romantic languages – Gutenberg produced a printed copy on his press, and then made many more sometime in the 1450s.

It is not known for certain when Gutenberg produced his Bible, but a note has been found in one of Gutenberg’s many Bibles suggesting that it was created on St. Matthew’s day (August 24th) of 1456.

One of Gutenberg's Bibles

One of Gutenberg’s Bibles

His Bible is regarded by many bibliophiles to be the finest book of all time, as Gutenberg spared no attention to detail in producing his Bible, treating the paper, using very fine inks, and paying very close attention to the margins and dimensions of the masterpiece.

Never before had there been a Bible – or any book, for that matter – created with such precision, perfection, and symmetry. It was as perfect a copy as the world had ever seen.

Detail of decoration from a Gutenberg Bible

Detail of decoration from a Gutenberg Bible

The book was an instant sensation, and Gutenberg quickly sold every copy of his book to various wealthy buyers. It was not yet cheap enough to be afforded by a regular common man, but it was snatched up by various church parishes, schools, and members of the rich class. Still available only in Latin, Gutenberg’s Bible was not accessible to the unlearned.

It was the first bestseller in world history, and many new printers were yet to take up shop, following in the example of Gutenberg, printing classical literature and contemporary publications as well.

Future pope Pius II wrote glowingly of the book, and Gutenberg’s ingenuity, showing that it is yet another historical misconception that the Church was ever opposed to the printing press or the production of Bibles. This error may be explained by a controversy that was yet to come.

The Renaissance, and the Reformation

The advent of the printing press, which led to a previously non-existent market for books that could be afforded – though barely – by the common people made a very hospitable climate for intellectual curiosity, education, and a revival of interest in classical literature and philosophy. Thus, the invention of the printing press has often been credited as the cause of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was a blast furnace for scholasticism, which was already developing at a steady rate during the medieval times with only the aid of transcribed works and learned teachers. With books becoming readily available, educational institutes flourished, and new ones were established.

A medieval university

A medieval university

And so it came to pass, in this climate of inquiry and deep thought that a new voice of controversy sprang from the newly founded University of Wittenberg. There, a monk named Martin Luther was questioning certain abuses in the church, and accusing its doctrine of being in error with Christian teaching.

Luther summarized his complaints in a long handwritten document now called his ’95 theses’. On October 31st, 1517, he nailed his work to the door of Wittenberg – a common practice at the time – for everyone to see. Word quickly spread of the theses, and they were taken to a nearby print shop where they were copied, and disseminated.

Luther nailing his theses

Luther nailing his theses

The theses spread like wildfire, and word eventually got to the Pope. Luther was eventually tried before royalty for heresy, but by that time, it was too late: his idea had got out, and people were not going to forget it. Despite attempts to burn all Luther’s work, there were too many copies in existence, and they continued to spread through Europe.

This upheaval in the church, and the establishment of new Christian denominations which rebelled against the Papacy in Rome has come to be known as the Reformation. The effects of the Reformation would soon influence the powers of the world.

The New World, and the print culture

About a century later, a group of Reformed Christians called the Puritans were tired of persecution by the Catholic church. In the time since Luther, Christians who spoke against Rome had been tortured and killed by the Church throughout Europe.

They boarded a ship called the Mayflower with other dissenting thinkers, seeking a free life in the New World. They eventually reached it, and established a colony there. Despite the hardships they famously faced during that hard winter, they successfully began the European colonization of the North American continent, and by proxy, the development of the American nation.

Over a hundred years after the pilgrims settled in what is now the United States, the colonies of America were ready to declare themselves an independent nation. Men who are now renowned as the nation’s ‘founding fathers’ wrote a document that would govern the laws of the state. And the document would sit in a place of higher authority than the country’s rulers – this was the foundation of a ‘constitutional republic’.

A culture had been started by Gutenberg – one dominated by the eye, and by the letter. Before his time, stories, history, information and even law had been passed down the generations orally. Even at the time that America was becoming a country that was governed by the written word, England – in stark contrast – was mostly powered by ‘common law’, a form of oral law that didn’t depend so much on written statues as it did tradition.

What would become one of the world’s greatest superpowers would be founded on this print culture, and pioneer its greatest territory so far.

Even before the American colonies united into a nation, colonists were using the printed word to their advantage. Newspapers made by local printers rapidly spread updates on the war with Britain, and did much to inform colonists, and influence their opinions.

But far more important than that, printed publications created a way for ideas to spread, and for a person’s thoughts to influence other people.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, famously wrote to his brother’s newspaper under the alias of ‘Silence Dogood’. His advice and anecdotes were greatly appreciated by his many readers, and spread rapidly.

But more importantly, Thomas Paine penned a pamphlet with his opinions about the war with Britain called ‘Common Sense’. The pamphlet was published by printers, and quickly became a bestseller in the colonies, doing much to affect sentiments regarding independence throughout the colonies.

George Washington read the pamphlet to his troops aloud, in order to inspire them for battle.

Gutenberg’s invention was changing the whole world, by giving people a way to spread their ideas which they didn’t have before.

The Internet

Over two hundred years later, the natural evolution of Gutenberg’s technology which has granted men similar abilities is the Internet – a medium for communication, expression, and the permanent storage of perfectly copied information.

In 2011, Frank La Rue submitted 88 recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council, and in recommendation #67, he noted “Unlike any other medium, the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an “enabler” of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.”

A visualization of the known Internet from The Opte Project

A visualization of the known Internet from The Opte Project

This week, celebrate the achievements of a German printer who made a single book, and changed the history of mankind.

Were it not for Gutenberg and his Bible, this website and the technologies we use to access it – and perhaps the very country from which you are visiting it – could very well not exist.