Stephen Fry loves technology. Here on Open Culture we’ve featured his investigations into everything from cloud computing to nanoscience to artificial intelligence and simulation theory. “I have never seen a smartphone I haven’t bought,” he wrote in 2007, the year Apple’s iPhone came out. But the iPhone would surely never have been if not for the Macintosh, the third of which ever sold in the United Kingdom went to Fry. (His fellow British technophile Douglas Adams had already snagged the first two.) And there wouldn’t have been a Macintosh — a stretch though this may seem — if not for the printing press, which by some reckonings set off the technological revolution that carries us along to this day.
The history of the printing press is thus, in a sense, a history of technology in microcosm. In the hourlong documentary The Machine that Made Us, Fry seeks out an understanding of the invention, the workings, and the evolution of the device that, as he puts it, “shaped the modern world.”
The use of movable type to run off many copies of a text goes back to 11th-century China, strictly speaking, but only in Europe did it first flourish to the point of giving rise to mass media. In order to place himself at the beginning of that particular story, Fry travels to Mainz in modern-day Germany, birthplace of a certain Johannes Gutenberg, whose edition of the Bible from the 1450s isn’t just the earliest mass-produced book but the most important one as well.
Fry may not have a straightforward relationship with religion, but he does understand well the ramifications of Gutenberg’s Bible-printing enterprise. And he comes to understand that enterprise itself more deeply while following the “Gutenberg trail,” retracing the steps of the man himself as he assembled the resources to put his invention into action. Since none of the presses Gutenberg built survive today (though at least one functioning approximate model does exist), Fry involves himself in reconstructing an example. He also visits a paper mill and a type foundry whose craftsmen make their materials with the same methods used in the 15th century. The fruit of these combined labors is a single replica page of the Gutenberg Bible: a reminder of what brought about the economic, political, and cultural reality we still inhabit these 570 years later.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.