1440, the advent of the printing press: Then and now

The invention of the printing press is something that everybody in the modern world takes for granted, as we sit in our houses with shelves filled with books, purchase them on Amazon and from bookstores at will, and millions of books are printed on-demand from companies such as Lulu and CreateSpace.

But back in 1440, when a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg was inventing a printing press process – one that would usher in a new breed of modernity and change the world of printing forever – the notion of having printed books with an elegant typeface was a pipedream.

The fact that Gutenberg’s method of printing remained the principal means of printing books until the late 20th century just goes to show what a true genius he was, and how innovative the process was. Prior to Gutenberg’s technique of using metal moulds and alloys, a special mechanical press and oil-based inks in order to mass-produce books, each and every book that was created was written by hand in a painstaking process.

No wonder the invention of the printing press is now regarded as one of the pioneering moments of the last millennium. Where would we be without our complete series of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Encyclopaedia Britannica? (Other series of books are available).

The Rise of Mass-Produced Books

Gutenberg had created a machine that transferred lettering or images by contact with various forms of inked surface onto paper, and soon enough, the number of books that were created rose dramatically. What used to take years could now be achieved in little time at all, and within the first ten years of the advent of the printing press, Gutenberg had begun work on mass-printing the Bible, starting was a 42-line version, before completing work on the full, block-printed version.

The first 200 copies of the full Bible were produced just 15 years after the invention, and within 50 years of the invention, at the turn of the 16th century, over 2500 cities around Europe now had access to an estimated 15 million books. It not only led to an increased level of literacy across Europe and the rest of the world, but it also helped to develop the University system that gives so many people the opportunity to educate and improve themselves.

The Evolution of the Printing Press

From this point on, investors and wealthy businessmen saw the potential in the technology and developed it to include instant double-sided printing, new and improved typefaces, and many new procedures and updates designed to speed up the process. The goal was to produce more and more books and to find new ways to reach millions of readers who were salivating for the form.

The industrial revolution of the late 18th century saw the printing press evolve from hand-operated machinery that made between 240-480 impressions per hour to steam-powered presses that could make anything from 800-2,400 impressions in the same amount of time, and saw the number of books produced every year increase significantly, and also paved the way for the newspaper press that dominates to this day.

The first weekly newspaper arrived in Antwerp in 1605, and was the beginning of the press that we now see in every village, town and city across the world, and shows no signs of slowing down, despite the invention of the internet dramatically affecting the circulation of sales.

The internet has affected all sides of the printing industry – from blogs and websites in the journalistic field and the rise of eBooks in the publishing world – but there is still nothing quite like holding a newspaper or a book in your hand and consuming it the old-fashioned way. It is engrained in our psyche, and it all started with Johannes Gutenberg back in 1440.