Miseducation: Printing Lies

News Herald

An impossible account of Gutenberg’s role in inventing the printing press

‘Miseducation’ is a series intended to correct falsities that are often mistaken for common knowledge. Tips provided are discouraged from being raised to maliciously correct teachers. Furthermore, OPT does not condone acts of know-it-allism.

Undoubtedly, the printing press ranks among the greatest inventions in history. Maybe more a movement than a machine, the printing press heralded in the era of mass communication, fueled the Renaissance, sparked the Reformation, and essentially began modern history as we know it. By casting off the shackles of illiteracy, the printing press’s dissemination of ideas weakened the social stranglehold of the literary elite and bolstered a newfound middle class. In the fifteenth century, this revolutionary contraption hatched ideas of free thought, free citizenry, and free press – which derives its name from the printing press itself. Truly, the printing press is such a powerful machine that it seems hard to believe it was the inspired vision of a solitary man: Johannes Gutenberg. After all, numerous publications credited Gutenberg for the invention, so the proof is right there in black and white.

Like a typesetter’s nightmare, the ink of history has run and grayed the story behind the printing press. While Johannes Gutenberg had his role to play, it is hardly the full story that he invented the printing press. Movable type as a substitute for handwriting was actually invented in the eleventh century by a Chinese alchemist named Bi Sheng. The common misattribution to Gutenberg instead was not a matter of widespread usage; Marco Polo reported the Chinese were using printed currency in the fourteenth century. Evidently, the reason that Gutenberg rose to fame as the architect of the printing press is the same reason the press proved such an impactful invention. In the absence of mass communication in Europe, it was unlikely Gutenberg or many other Europeans had heard word of movable type developments from Asia. If it were not for the limitations of time, Bi Sheng and his press would have surely made the front page.

What Gutenberg did contribute to the development of the printing press was funded by borrowing large sums of money to keep his vision afloat. As it happens, much of the proof of his involvement known by historians is based on court records where Gutenberg defended himself against numerous breaches of contract, as his property containing printing materials were inventoried by the courts for repossession. Fundamentally, Gutenberg’s press was a combination of the inventions of others. His conception was a modification on the design of a wine press. He saw the then-modern method of relief printing from wooden blocks as unsuitable to withstand long-term usage, so he replaced it with metal. In his day, ink and paper mills were booming industries, which made it easy to adapt to a press. All of this amalgamated with bookmaking techniques produced a cleverly useful machine, even though it basically already existed.

While Gutenberg never did enough preliminary research to know he was only reinventing Bi Sheng’s printing press, his commitment to the final product was intense. Gutenberg conducted thousands of printing experiments before completing what he considered his first print, only after meticulously meeting his personal standards of quality. He labored over a metal alloy of his own design that was soft enough for delicate lettering but tough enough for durability. Rather than settle for paper, Gutenberg opted to print on a top-quality parchment called vellum, which required him to maintain a herd of cattle to supply animal skins. The extra effort was so that his work would stand up to time, as over forty copies have lasted until present day. Had Gutenberg rushed a printing with shoddy materials, he might have bargained with a few literates for a decent payday, but it might not have started a revolution that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages.

After reaching bankruptcy just before the sale of his first edition of books, Gutenberg’s products and materials were repossessed as collateral. Eventually, he was recognized for his efforts and rewarded with the title of nobleman and a pension for his remaining years. While we view him today as a timeless innovator, Gutenberg was regarded at the time for his short temper, colossal debts, and penchant for wine. Personal and historical failings aside, he has since become respected because his commitment to the craft of making literature is commendable, which is why some of his texts survive today. Gutenberg teaches us that determined effort is the only path to legacy. Firsts do not always win, but bests will always rise to the top.

Inventor in History: Johannes Gutenberg – Katie Miller – Intellectual Ventures Laboratory

Technological Advances During the Song – Asia for Educators – Columbia University

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