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Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible by Antonio Zugaldia from Washington, D.C., United States (DSC01871) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In modern history, there is a name that stands out as forever altering the ability for people to communicate. Gutenberg.

Many people credit Johannes Gutenberg with an invention that allowed for the distribution of mass produced communication for the first time: the printing press. This is true. Gutenberg did invent the printing press, in fact, he converted a wine press into the first ‘modern’ machine that could press ink onto paper. But people also credit him with the invention of movable type. And I’m afraid I have to stop you there. Because technically, he didn’t.

Johannes, what in God’s name have you done to my wine press?

The term movable type refers to a system of individual letters that are ‘raised’ in relief on blocks. When the top of the block is inked, the image can be transferred to a sheet of paper, much in the same way as we used to do in school with a potato carving. On a potato, the letter is carved out of the surface of the tuber, and that raised image presses the ink onto the substrate (in most cases, paper). Rubber stamps work much the same way. So, Gutenberg is often credited with the invention of movable type, which was a big deal back in the 1640’s. He used movable type in his first printing press. And it was revolutionary. Up until then, the written word was just that. Written.

But movable type actually dates back about 400 years earlier – from China. By the time Gutenberg was thinking about making print, movable type wasn’t the issue. He could make movable type. The issue was something else. Up until then, the only way to create type was to hand-carve each letter, which took a lot of time. One might think that hand-carving a bunch of type blocks still meant you could produce a number of books with each carving. However, if you think of a whole page of text, you would need hundreds of the same letters in order to populate a page. And the type would wear out quickly, or become damaged. He wanted to print hundreds of books, and hand-carving the type would be far too time consuming.

Gutenberg’s breakthrough, the one that changed the world, wasn’t the concept of movable type, nor was it his construction of the press, although that was significant. It was the hand-mould. The hand-mould was the key to the first true ‘mass production’ of human communication. It was a device for pouring molten metal, (a combination of lead, tin, and antimony) onto a carved letter (called a ‘matrix’), forming a single-character block of type. This invention allowed the printer to cast as many blocks of type as necessary in a very short time. Letters were uniform and consistent. And damaged type could be replaced in minutes. It was this ability to quickly produce movable type that was the real breakthrough. After that, the rest, as they say, is history. He printed a bunch of bibles, pissed off the church, and had his new printing company stolen out from under him by a silent partner. And, like most revolutionaries, he died never knowing the full extent of the influence that his invention would have on the modern world.