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How the Printing Press Changed the World

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  • 0:01 Putting Block to Paper
  • 1:06 Moveable Type
  • 1:53 Religious Flames
  • 2:49 Other Big Ideas
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When you think of inventions that changed the world, you may think of farming tools or the wheel, or even the Internet. However, few can truly compare to the humble printing press.

Putting Block to Paper

Put yourself in the shoes of a great thinker of the Middle Ages. You've got a lot of really amazing ideas to share with the world, but sharing those ideas is problematic. After all, the means of producing books are squarely within the power of the Roman Catholic Church and unless your idea is considered acceptable by them, then it may as well be a non-starter. But even if your idea's considered worthy, you've got to wait on a small army of monks to copy your idea one letter at a time. Human error gets multiplied and sooner or later your idea is still only in the hands of a few people and even they may not have the truth. So what is an author to do?

Luckily, towards the end of the Middle Ages, an idea emerged to print books using wood-block printing, where each page would be etched into a piece of wood, which would then be used like a giant stamp. But even that was laborious. Surely something had to give. Eventually, wood-block printing gave way to moveable type, an invention that changed the world.

Moveable Type

Moveable type, the process of assembling a printed page by use of tiny individual type pieces for each letter, had been used for centuries in Asia. But it was Johannes Gutenberg, a German metalworker, who perfected the use of moveable type with Latin letters. In short, he had invented what we now know as the printing press by 1450.

So what did that mean for humanity? Simply put, books could be reproduced without monks copying them by hand or whole pages being carved from a single piece of wood. A printer could make fifty copies of one page, then quickly reset the type and make fifty copies of another. Suddenly, customization had come to the printer's world.

Religious Flames

One area of life in which this saw an immediate impact was on that of the religious debates of the 1400s and 1500s. The ideas of the Reformation were fought with ideas. And ideas meant books. As a result, printing presses were important strategic tools in disseminating a particular idea. Because they were able to do a lot of work with only the expertise needed to run the press itself, it meant that the ideas could be spread without a great deal of centralization. This was itself a game changer.

Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther, but few of us realize that he translated the Bible from Latin into German. It was then widely published so that many people could have access to the text outside of the church. In fact, a similar propagation of ideas happened when the King James Version of the Bible appeared in English speaking regions.

Other Big Ideas

As important as the printing press was to religious conflicts, that was not the biggest influence of the invention. Instead, that honor would have to go to the idea of increasing literacy in general. As you might expect, hand-copied books were expensive. However, printed books were cheap enough that a person of some means could hope to accumulate a small library within their lifetime. These small libraries served as social status markers for sure, but it was knowledge of what was within the books that actually mattered the most.

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