How the printing press dismantled (and rebuilt) society | by Danielle Jae Jaramillo | August 2022

Dissection of historic transformative innovations

A woodcut depicting from left to right a composer, an extractor and a drummer. 1568. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

IIIt is difficult to underestimate the impact of the printing press throughout history. Can you even begin to imagine what life would be like if the information was not a Google search away? None of the technologies that make up the Internet would exist even if Renaissance printers gave up at the first hurdle. This article explains how the printing press came into existence and dissects the factors behind its disruptive effect on society.

While books existed before the printing press and its predecessors, they were a luxury reserved for the literate elites. The materials needed, especially the type and caliber of writing surface needed for writing, were expensive and resource-intensive to produce.

Books were painstakingly handwritten, for which there was a shortage of people who could read and write. The water-based inks commonly used for these books were corrosive and slowly ate through parchment or paper. All of this combined resulted in a product that was neither practical nor accessible for ordinary people.

Since the majority of people were illiterate, their sources of information for all aspects of life were controlled by a privileged few with a vested interest in censoring information that threatened their control over society (think monarchs, religious figures … to religious figures who were essentially monarchs, etc.). Only a handful of wealthy individuals could hold a monopoly on writing and producing books, spreading knowledge, and ultimately the poor would remain poor.

The first iteration of printing was woodblock printing, originating in China during the Tang Dynasty around 200 AD. The text to be printed was written on a sheet of paper, pasted face down on a block of wood, and the characters were engraved with a knife. Each block could then be reused to print multiple copies of that page of text.

Although faster and better positioned for mass production than handwriting, this early form of woodblock printing was still very time consuming because each page of a book required an engraved block. Nevertheless, woodblock printing was extremely effective for mass production of things like receipts, labels, and official documents.

Movable type was invented around 1000 years later in the Song dynasty in China, in response to shortcomings in woodblock printing. Rather than cutting out an entire block for each page of the book, a reusable block (called a “type”) was carved for each language character.

This way, printers could simply assemble each page as needed, rather than writing and engraving a block for each page. Although an important process innovation for book printing, wooden blocks were still cheaper and more durable than movable types. Additionally, written Chinese required thousands of characters, so movable type was not efficient enough to outpace woodblock printing.

Despite its failure to take off in East Asia, movable type slowly spread across Eurasia before reaching Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s. While Chinese engravers needed thousands of characters to assemble a single book, European engravers needed only about 290 characters to fully cover the Latin alphabet and other local languages. As such, Gutenberg has successfully adapted moveable type to Europe, with some important additions.

Gutenberg types were made of a durable metal alloy that was much stronger than East Asian wood, clay, and metal types. Commonly used water-based inks were not suitable for metal alloy types because the ink simply slid over them before printing. So Gutenberg invented an oil-based ink that was thick enough to adhere to his characters but could transfer well to parchment or paper.

The press itself was based on wine and oil presses and ensured firm and even pressure distribution when printing. Previously, letters were individually stamped by hand, or an impression of the page had been rubbed into the writing surface (so that only one side could be used).

Now the press allowed printers to speed up the process by pressing multiple letters at once. Printing with the press also meant that both sides of the paper could be used. In this way, printing with the Gutenberg press was faster, cheaper, and suitable for mass production – value propositions that none of the pre-existing production methods could offer.

Disruptive innovation is a type of innovation that transforms an industry or market by claiming the low end of the market segment and moving upmarket over time, or by creating an entirely new market segment in the existing market . Innovations that disrupt incumbents are not always disruptive, as disruptive innovations must have enabling technology, an innovative business model, and a cohesive value network.

Gutenberg’s press, which was a new combination of existing technologies, enabled the economical mass production of books. However, the press was just a new gadget until printers could establish a network of distributors.

When the first printers finally reached Venice, they began to sell their wares (books and informational pamphlets) to merchant captains. These pieces, especially the information pamphlets, would then be copied by local printers and distributed in other towns. As such, the enabling technology of the printing press allowed printers and merchant ships to continue the dissemination of information.

Moreover, these prints were not intended for the wealthy elites who, from time immemorial, had been the target audience for the writings. Rather, printed books were designed to be low-end alternatives for those who could not afford manuscript copies on parchment or vellum. Given the cheaper price and distribution network established by the first generation of printers, the business models of these printers created a whole new segment of consumers.

Overall, the printing company was well positioned to scale up and outperform traditional incumbents because the technology was feasible, the printers were able to establish a network that was profitable for everyone involved, and there was a large segment of people who wanted to read but couldn’t afford to buy from the old incumbents.

Gutenberg was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church was one of the first institutions to attack the printing press, as it viewed the newer, more standard Bibles as a symbol of its authority.

Ironically, Gutenberg’s press is perhaps best known for fueling the Protestant Reformation and weakening the Catholic Church, without strengthening it. The democratization of literacy and reading meant that most people could afford to have their own copy of the Bible. Since they could read independently and no longer depended on another person to read and interpret texts for them, people could form their own opinions about religion.

It should also be noted that since it has become common to own personal copies of the Bible, the demand has increased for religious texts translated into local languages, not the archaic Latin of the scholars and the wealthy.

Nevertheless, many still could not read or afford a personal copy of the Bible. Both pro and anti-Catholic propaganda addressed these audiences with pamphlets and leaflets printed with pictures and drawings illustrating their respective ideologies. This would be the first beginnings of graphic design on a commercial scale.

Once engravers were able to print designs into books, the impact of printing spread to science. Printing enabled the dissemination of knowledge and ideas because scientific texts could be published more quickly, in greater numbers and with fewer errors. Although the printing press did not democratize scientific knowledge in the same way as it did literature, it did facilitate the development of scientific methodology, journals, and peer review.

Today, printed books are on the productivity shelf. There are many ways to read written material (if you’re reading this on paper, I’m going to eat my hat). Like the manuscript books that preceded the press, printed books are arguably becoming more of a creature comfort than a necessity.

What’s interesting about printing is that it hasn’t been interrupted, despite how far other technologies have come since then. Instead, the print was adapted and proliferated into other industries like packaging, advertising, fashion design, etc. It is for this reason that the Gutenberg press still holds relevance as one of the defining innovations that shaped human society into what it is today.