Today, Europe invents Johann Gutenberg. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We date book-printing with
Gutenberg's Bible in 1456. One day we wrote books
with pens. The next we went to the book store. And
that's only a small exaggeration. By 1500 we'd
printed almost 15,000,000 new books. That spelled
huge change by any reckoning.
No new technology moves that fast if the world
isn't primed to receive it. But the world was.
Europe had cried out for movable type since the
late 1100's. That was almost 300 years.
First, Benedictine and Cistercian monks took up
serious book making. They set up large book-copying
centers. They honed the technology of pen and ink.
Their books spawned the new Medieval universities.
In Paris, academic superstars like Pierre
Abélard turned learning into a spectator
sport. Soon, commercial scribes were setting up
shop up around the universities.
They'd copy books in pieces. One student read
Chapter 3 while another studied Chapter 8. Scribes
split up copying the same way. Booksellers farmed
pieces out to cottage-industry copiers. A scribe
copied a chapter in one house. An artist trimmed it
in another. Those assembly-line networks spread the
written word. They created a demand for it.
Up to now all this writing was done on sheepskin.
Islamic scholars in Spain had picked up the old
Chinese invention of paper in the late 12th
century. But the Catholic Church scorned paper.
They weren't inclined to buy into a Moslem
So the demand for books rose until the cost of
sheepskin became impossible. Italy finally began
making paper in 1270. In the late 1300s, France and
Germany took it up. By 1400, only England still
held out against this cheap new writing material.
By 1400, scribes were using another Chinese
technology to speed book making. It was block
printing. They started using wood blocks to put
pictures and illuminated letters in books.
That was the world Gutenberg entered. By the late
1430s, he was one of several trying to mechanize
book making. By now, people had block-printed
simple books and decks of playing cards. It's even
likely that some forms of movable type had been
tried before Gutenberg.
We normally have to learn to want new technologies.
But now and then one fills a long-standing craving.
Flight was like that. So was TV. If one person
hadn't invented it, another would've.
And that's the way it was with printing. Sure,
Gutenberg invented movable type. But, it's no
exaggeration to say that Medieval Europe worked for
300 years to invent Gutenberg.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Rasmussen, B.H., The Transition from Manuscript
to Printed Book. London: Oxford University
The Haarlem Legend of The Invention of
Printing by Lourens Janszoon Coster,
critically examined by van der Dr. A. van der
Linde, Naarden: Anton W. van Bekhoven, 1968.
Scholderer, V., Johann Gutenberg: The
Inventor of Printing. London: The Trustees
of the British Museum, 1963.
Lehmann-Haupt, H., Gutenberg and the Master
of the Playing Cards. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1966.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
article on Printing.
A great deal of specialized vocabulary surrounds
all this history. The Church copying centers were
called "scriptoria." Book copyists were painfully
aware of the accumulation of errors that could
occur when they worked from one copy to the next.
They accordingly tried, always, to work from master
copies that they called "exemplars." The technical
name for sheepskin was "vellum" or "parchment."
The estimated 14,500,000 books printed by the year
1500 are called the "incunabula," which literally
means that they come out of the cradle of book
printing. They represented about 37,000 texts. Half
those books were some form of religious material.
Three quarters were written in Latin.
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 216, 628,
753, 894, and 992.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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