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Gutenberg: The First Information Revolution

The printing press brought information and knowledge to ordinary people.

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Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1469) was a German inventor who revolutionized the distribution of information by inventing the printing press. It is a mechanical device for quickly and cheaply making copies of books and manuscripts. He, thereby, democratized information and laid the foundation of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the Reformation.

The Power of Writing

Before Gutenberg, all books were hand-written! Most people could neither read nor write. Books were, therefore, scarce, expensive, and precious. Books were owned mainly by kings, wealthy merchants, and powerful institutions like the Church. It took a competent person several days to make a single copy of a book.

In China, there was an entire class of people dedicated to writing called Mandarins. In Medieval Europe, the job of copying books was often done by monks.

The Printing Press

Gutenberg was the first European to invent standardized moveable blocks with letters carved out of them. Copying a book manuscript was then like assembling a puzzle of these blocks to form the desired words. He applied ink to the assembled page and squeezed a piece of paper onto it. Thereby, he was able to print an entire page in one single action.

It took Gutenberg about half a day to assemble all the pages of a book manuscript, and he could then print hundreds of copies in just a few days. The Gutenberg Bible is considered a masterpiece of artistry and technical skill.

The First Information Revolution

The invention of the computer and the internet in the 20th century is often called the information age. It enabled a more global and connected world with knowledge available at the click of a button.

In one sense, Gutenberg’s printing press was an even greater revolution because it made new things possible that had previously been unthinkable. Scholars and mathematicians now had a way to distribute their ideas and works widely. Before, it took hundreds of years for a manuscript to spread across Europe. Now it was disseminated in just a few years. The speed of conversation and idea exchange increased so much that it allowed bright individuals to get feedback and criticism of their work from a wide variety of people within their lifetimes. Ideas spread like wildfire and were developed far more rapidly than before.

Increased Literacy

Cheaper books, primarily the Bible, meant that ordinary people also had a reason to learn to read. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, literacy steadily increased until most people could read. Without Gutenberg’s revolution, this would likely never have happened.

In effect, Gutenberg democratized information. It means that the power of the word previously in the hands of a tiny elite in powerful institutions now became available to ordinary people.

It did not happen without conflict. The German monk Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin and Greek to ordinary German and published it using Gutenberg’s printing press. The Catholic Church did not like this because it undermined the authority of the Church. Luther started the Protestant movement that resulted in more than a century of religious civil war in Europe. Both parties accused the other of corruption and heresy, which in modern-day language perhaps could be translated into “fake news” and “misinformation.”

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