The greatest technological innovation of all-time?

Being involved in the technology field one always has to wonder what the greatest technological innovation of all time was? There are many great options like USB, the microprocessor, the transistor or the smartphone. All great answers but they may not be THE answer. The answer itself may not actually have anything to do with electricity or computers at all and could be several hundred years old but it revolutionized the technological and communications fields for all time and helped to make all of those possible. The innovation came from a man named Johannes Gutenberg in the form of movable type and a printing press.

How to print books

We take books for granted today, either in paper or electronic form. There was a time when they were the domain of only the rich and the church. Being able to read was something that only the nobility and clergy were able to do. Books, mostly the Bible, were transcribed by hand and were elaborate works of art but they took years to complete making them extremely expensive, something that the average peasant could not afford to begin with. With the church and religion a huge part of life in Medieval Europe something would have to change if the world was to move forward.

A “secret” to get someone out of debt

That change came in the city of Mainz, Germany. Situated along the Rhine River it was one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire with its own archbishop and cathedral. A blacksmith in the city named Johannes Gutenberg (actually born as Johannes Gensfleisch) had an idea in 1439. He was in debt owing to his involvement in a project to sell polished mirrors that claimed to capture holy light from relics to pilgrims visiting the area. The event he had intended to sell the mirrors at had been delayed by a year due to flooding but his investors wanted their payment as promised. He told them that he had a secret and he would share it with them.

That secret would change the world. Gutenberg wanted to develop a system of movable type which would revolutionize the printing industry. The idea of printing was not his, it originated in Holland about the same time though but his investors must have been convinced. He moved to Strasbourg, France to begin working on his invention. His idea itself was not a completely new idea either, the Chinese had developed a system in the 800s using wooden blocks to do just this but it was impractical due to the complex Chinese language. A language like German which used a Latin alphabet was much easier to work with. He returned to Mainz in 1448 and took out a loan from his brother, probably to build the printing press. Two years later it was operational.

Movable type

The printing press used movable type, that is each letter was its own block. A metal alloy was used to cast the letters and were used to build sentences. They would be covered in ink and a piece of paper placed on top of it. A press would then be used to transfer the ink to the paper and it could be done over and over and over again. The first press used something similar to a wine press as winemaking was common in Gutenberg’s area of Germany and was used first print a poem. His printing press could print something 200 times faster than a monk could write. Impressive indeed!

The first bestseller

With a massive debt Gutenberg was forced to take up printing the one thing that could be mass consumed by everyone: the Holy Bible. In 1455 he began printing a first run of about 150 to 180 Bibles. This was the first best seller and clients were clamoring for one. The church even gave its blessing which would allow it to spread the Christian message much easier and more economically. The Bibles sold for 30 florins (or over a year’s wage for a skilled laborer) but this was much cheaper that a hand copied Bible and of that first run 48 still exist today.

The church might have come to regret this decision. The availability of quick printing allowed for unscrupulous church leaders to sell indulgences, that is to allow people to pay to have their sins forgiven. Some church leaders were getting rich off of this practice and it led to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church door and having them widely reprinted across Europe, perhaps the world’s second best seller. With 300,000 copies of his Theses in circulation the Reformation began shaking the church to its core and changing the world as they knew it.

Gutenberg did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor

Gutenberg himself was not able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Despite his best seller he still owed a massive debt and was sued by one of his investors. The court decided that Gutenberg had misused his investment and his investor was awarded control of printing as well as half of all of the printed Bibles. Gutenberg tried again, setting up a small print shop in the town of Bamberg where he began printing a dictionary while his investors continued to operate his old shop in Mainz but removed his name from the shop and all literature.

He would later be exiled but three years before his death he was given his proper recognition and Gutenberg returned to Mainz. He died in 1468 and was buried in a churchyard. Overtime this church was paved over and his grave lost to progress. His birthplace was also lost to progress and his church was bombed during World War 2 and left as a ruin. Only the font that was used to baptize him remains and no pictures of him are believed to exist.

But the legacy of his printing press was felt all over Europe. It led to the Renaissance and helped to increase the literacy rate of the population. It allowed great thinkers to question the world and to make discoveries that are still used today. Only about 30% of adults in Gutenberg’s Europe could read. One hundred years later nearly half of the population could read and it has only increased since. With increased literacy came new discoveries and technological improvements to what we have today so as you are reading this, thank Johannes Gutenberg for your laptop, your smartphone and even that book over in the corner.

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