The history of the printed book presents us with an observable yet complete revolution of communication. This historical record is so diverse that we are able to observe the economic, political, and sociocultural change that occurred over a period of 300 to 500 years. In the shifts that took place in the world from the 15th century to the 18th century, science diverged from religion and thus, a new world opened up.
In order to completely understand the effects of the printing press in the 15th century, we need to go right back to the 7th century to find out how the book world was being organized before printing was discovered. In doing so, you will see for yourself the changes that have taken place and that brought about the introduction of the printing press.
Many authors and Historians believe that it was the single most important invention in the middle ages, and it single handedly brought about changes in the Protestant reformation, scientific theories, European literary class, and the artistic Renaissance way of thinking. Even though there were other factors that also brought about these changes, it is amongst the privileged few to be commended.
A Brief History
Towards the mid-15th century period, things really began to change with its invention. In the year 1452, Gutenberg thought of the idea of a movable type. Working hard in his workshop, he brought together three different technologies - paper, the winepress, and oil-based ink - so as to print books. It should be noted that the printing press is not the result of a single invention; it is but the aggregation of three different technologies that were known centuries before even Gutenberg was born. However, Gutenberg still gets the credit for inventing it, which was said to have been developed simultaneously in Prague and Holland. In his pursuit for developing and refining it, there were many other inventions that were brought together by Gutenberg, which were:
The adaptation of the olive or wine oil in the screw-type press, which had been used for hundreds of years in Asia and Europe. The implementation of block-print technology, which has been known throughout Europe ever since Marco Polo arrived from Asia in the 13th century. The development of certain paper production techniques that could be used for mass production. Paper was brought to Italy from China in the 12th century but was considered to be too flimsy to be out into books.
Before the onset of the printing press, books were generally made up of vellum because it was considered to be durable. For books that took a year or more to produce, paper was considered to be too flimsy. However, vellum was way too costly to produce for print books.
The implementation of oil-based inks. These inks had been around ever since the 10th century but were not used, as they tended to smear on vellum. In his pursuit to refine it, Gutenberg developed a special punch and mold system that allowed for the mass production of the movable type that was used to reproduce a certain page of text. These letters were then brought together in a type tray that was used to print a particular page of text. So, if a letter did break down, it could then be replaced. When the copies of one page were printed, the type could then be reused for the next page or book.
However, these technological advancements stretched over a span of 5 centuries. They are not clustered around Gutenberg's time. The first few books to be printed and sold at print shops were religious tracts and bibles. The next category of books that attracted publishers was the 'humanist' types and other antique texts, but there was no or very little printing of new ideas taking place. Most people entered the printing business and then quickly left it. The main reason was the distribution of books was not organized. The potential for improvement was there, the market was there, and the demand was definitely there, but the control, transport, and advertising mechanisms were poorly organized. To add to this, the literacy rate in Europe was still very low. Most people did not even know how to read. However, this situation was improved by the Frankfort Fair, which was a center for printing and drew hundreds of booksellers, scholars, publishers, and collectors from all over the world. This helped to improve and coordinate demand and supply.
Effects of the Printing Press
The main effect however, was to multiply the supply and cut down the costs of books. Thus, it made information of all kinds, readily available to a larger segment of the population. Libraries were then able to store more information, that too at a lower cost.
The printing press also facilitated the preservation and dissemination of knowledge in the standardized form - this was very important for the advancement of scholarship, science and technology. It has certainly fueled the start of the 'information revolution', which is at par with the Internet of today. Printing could spread new ideas and information quickly, and with much greater impact. Printing encouraged literacy in the population and eventually brought about a deep and lasting impact on many people's lives. Although many of the earlier books dwelt on religious subjects, businessmen, students, the upper and middle class strata of society still bought these books. Printer on the other hand, responded to this demand with medical, moralizing, travel, and practical manuals.
Printing also provided a platform for scholars and prevented corruption of texts taking place through hand copying. By giving everyone the same texts to work from, the printing press has brought about progress in science and scholarship in a faster and more reliable way.