People have spoken for decades, and with great certainty, of the impending death of print. But even here into the 21st century, presses continue to run around the world, putting out books and periodicals of all different shapes, sizes, and print runs. The technology has endured so well in part because it has had so long to evolve. Everyone knows that printing began with something called the Gutenberg Press, and many know that Gutenberg himself (Johannes, a German blacksmith) unveiled his invention in 1440, introducing movable type to the world. Ten years later came the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed using it, still considered among the most beautiful books ever mass-produced.
But how did the Gutenberg press actually work? In the video above, you can watch a demonstration of “the most complete and functioning Gutenberg Press in the world” at the Crandall Historical Printing Museum in Provo, Utah. While it certainly marked a vast improvement in efficiency over the hand-copying used to make books before, it still required no small amount of labor on the part of an entire staff specially trained to apply the ink, square up the paper, and turn a not-that-easy-to-turn lever. The guide, who’s clearly put in the years mastering his routine, has both clear explanations and plenty of corny jokes at hand throughout the process.
One can hardly overstate the importance of the machine we see in action here, which facilitated the spread of ideas all around Europe and the world and turned the book into what no less a technophile than Stephen Fry calls “the building block of our civilization.” He says that in an episode of the BBC series The Medieval Mind in which he explores the world of Gutenberg printing in even greater depth. We’ve grown so accustomed to the near-instantaneous transfer of information over the internet that dealing with print can feel like a hassle. I myself just recently resented having to buy a printer for work reasons, even though its sheer speed and clarity would have seemed like a miracle to Gutenberg, whose invention — and the labor of the countless skilled workers who operated it — set in motion the developments that let us spread ideas so impossibly fast on sites like this today.
Oxford University Presents the 550-Year-Old Gutenberg Bible in Spectacular, High-Res Detail
How Ink is Made: A Voluptuous Process Revealed in a Mouth-Watering Video
The Art of Collotype: See a Near Extinct Printing Technique, as Lovingly Practiced by a Japanese Master Craftsman
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Some minor corrections. Gutenberg did not invent printing. Printing from carved wood blocks was an existing technology and used a similar press (which ultimately had been adapted from fruit presses used for crushing grapes and olives) that he in turn adapted to work with his cast types. His principle (and cleverest) invention, which made modern printing economically feasible, was an adjustable rectangular mold that could be used to cast individual types efficiently. Printing from moveable type had been done earlier in Asia, although Gutenberg may not have known about that. But his casting system made it possible to produce types quickly in large quantities.
The cutting of letter punches (the masters used for casting types) was an existing technology that Gutenberg, a goldsmith, not a blacksmith, was familiar with. Such punches were used to emboss lettering on silver and gold objects.
So, yes, Gutenberg put together the whole process and was the inventor of the key innovation that made modern printing possible. But he didn’t walk out into a desert with a bunch of lumber on his back and invent everything from scratch. He built on the existing technology and jumped it forward.