Stephen Fry Takes Us Inside the Story of Johannes Gutenberg & the First Printing Press

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See How The Guten­berg Press Worked: Demon­stra­tion Shows the Old­est Func­tion­ing Guten­berg Press in Action

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

The Old­est Book Print­ed with Mov­able Type is Not The Guten­berg Bible: Jikji, a Col­lec­tion of Kore­an Bud­dhist Teach­ings, Pre­dat­ed It By 78 Years and It’s Now Dig­i­tized Online

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Stephen Fry Pro­files Six Russ­ian Writ­ers in the New Doc­u­men­tary Russia’s Open Book

Stephen Fry Intro­duces the Strange New World of Nanoscience

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.

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