|Click on image below to view a sample of
Gutenberg's first work.
In the early 1450's rapid cultural change in Europe fueled a growing need
for the rapid and cheap production of written documents. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith
and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, borrowed money to
develop a technology that could address this serious economic bottleneck. From its
European debut in the 12th century, paper gradually proved to be a viable alternative to
the animal-skin vellum and parchment that had been the standard means of carrying written
communication. Rag paper became increasingly cheap and plentiful while literacy expanded;
the two processes accelerated, in part, by stimulating each other. The need for
documentation continued to increase with expansions in trade and in governmental scope and
complexity. Scribal monks sanctioned by the Church had overseen the maintenance and
hand-copying of sacred texts for centuries, but the secular world began to foster its own
version of the scribal copyist profession. The many new scriptoria, or writing shops, that
sprang up employed virtually every literate cleric who wanted work.
Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing press that used movable
metal type. Despite their rapid growth in numbers, secular scribes simply could not keep
up with the commercial demand for books. Gutenberg also saw strong market potential in
selling indulgences, the slips of paper offering written dispensation from sin that the
Church sold to fund crusades, new buildings and other projects devoted to expanding its
dominance. In fact, press runs of 200,000 indulgences at a time were common soon after the
handwritten versions became obsolete.
Gutenberg developed his press by combining features of existing technologies: textile,
papermaking and wine presses. Perhaps his most significant innovation, however, was the
efficient molding and casting of movable metal type. Each letter was carved into the end
of a steel punch which was then hammered into a copper blank. The copper impression was
inserted into a mold and a molten alloy made of lead, antimony and bismuth was poured in.
The alloy cooled quickly and the resulting reverse image of the letter attached to a lead
base could be handled in minutes. The width of the lead base varied according to the
letter's size (for example, the base of an "i" would not be nearly as wide as
the base of a "w"). This emphasized the visual impact of words and clusters of
words rather than evenly spaced letters. This principle lent an aesthetic elegance and
sophistication to what seemed to many to be the magically perfect regularity of a printed
page. Gutenberg designed a Latin print Bible which became his signature work. He launched
a run of some 300 two-volume Gutenberg Bibles which sold for 30 florins each, or about
three years of a clerk's wage. Despite the dramatic success of his invention, Gutenberg
managed to default on a loan and lost his whole printing establishment. His techniques
were made public and his creditor won the rights to the proceeds from the Gutenberg
The clergy were eager to take advantage of the power of print. Printed indulgences,
theological texts, even how-to manuals for conducting inquisitions became common tools for
the spread of the Church's influence. But the Church had even more difficulty controlling
the activities of printers than they had with the secular scribes. The production and
distribution of an expanding variety of texts quickly became too widespread to contain.
Printed copies of Martin Luther's theses, for example, were widely and rapidly
disseminated. They prompted far-reaching discussions that became the foundation for
mounting opposition to the Church's role as the sole custodian of spiritual truth. Bibles
printed in vernacular languages rather than Latin fueled the Protestant Reformation based
on the assertion that there was no need for the Church to interpret scripture--an
individual's relationship with God could be, at least in theory, direct and personal. A
fundamental shift in power was taking place: From the hands of the few (an institution,
the Church) into the hands of the many (the people).
That shift led to political and social tidal waves. Access to the printed word launched
human potential into the stratosphere, fostering intellectual growth to depths of the
social pyramid that had never been seen before. Gutenberg inadvertently began an
information revolution that created institutions of education, industry and government as
we know them. For example, democracy in America would not be possible without it. The
Greeks, because of their small size, found the distribution of knowledge, an important
part of participatory government, relatively easy. But large empires or nations, could
pull the same thing off. That is, until Gutenberg opened the floodgates.
That democratic government also had ripple effects. The United States became one of the
most innovative peoples since Rome, using knowledge to improve the lives of its citizens.
While the first millennium was dominated by powers that held a majority of the population
in their control, Gutenberg began what might become the hallmark of the third millennium:
Power in the hands of individuals who each control their own personal destiny, as guided
by the knowledge they've acquired during their lifetime.
Time Magazine recently named Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, their Person of the Year.
We can trace the reasons for this honor back to Gutenberg. Below, fill in the flow chart
that traces the revolution begun by Gutenberg and ends (at least during this millennium)
with Bezos. To do this, you must think about cause and effect relationships and how they
occur in steps or stages. For example:
Rome Falls >> Society needs structure >> Christianity >> Papal power
grows >> Corruption increases >> Indulgences sold >> Luther protests
>> Christian church splits >> State authority overpowers Church
Now, apply what you know (and what you can figure out based on that knowledge) about
Gutenberg and today's world. There is no exact answer - It's what you think.