The Magic Of The Printed Word

Pop quiz: Who invented printing? Or who invented the printing press?

In previous blogs, I wrote about a book I’m “listening” to.  In “Great Scientific Ideas that Changed the World,” Professor Steven Goldman describes how book printing created a complete revolution.

Think about it: Long ago (yes, before “texting”), reproducing a manuscript meant using a copyist who would painstakingly copy one page at a time. A little bit of booze, a sleepless night… and entire lines or pages could be missing or poorly copied. Quality control didn’t really exist back then. With the invention of printing, more faithful copies were suddenly possible, and in larger quantities.

Turns out, in spite of what we often think, our German friend Gutenberg (1398–1468), aka Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, did not invent printing or the printing press. The Chinese did. They invented printing in the 6th century. It was called “block printing.”  They would carve symbols into wooden blocks, which would be inked and placed on paper made from vegetable material. In the 12th century, they began using movable type. 

Thanks to population migrations, block-printed books were sold in Europe by the middle of the 15th century.

So was Gutenberg a fake? No, of course not. What he did come up with is printing using movable metal type, which was much more efficient than wood. 

In addition, he invented a new printing press, as well as new type of ink (oil based) that was more adapted to the new technology. Combined, these inventions led to the explosion of the printing industry.

Between 1450 and 1500, at least 2 million books (not to mention countless other publications) were printed in Europe. But remember, the population was immensely smaller than today.  In addition, illiteracy was rampant, because only a fraction (maybe 5 percent) of the population could read.

Of course, writing books and printing them was just the beginning. Somehow, a book needs to end up in the hands of a reader.

All these fine people suddenly needed massive amounts of paper in order to print books. And paper mills, print shops and book stores. And manufacturers of ink and printing presses. And a distribution system, and a marketing system and a sales system to reach the customer.

In addition, lots of people needed to be trained for this whole new industry: printers, editors, craftsmen, people to sweep the floors, supervisors, carpenters, blue collars, white collars …

The most impressive thought may be that nobody sat down to organize this new industry. Gigantic infrastructures emerged via self-organization, thanks to entrepreneurs and visionaries.

As Professor Steven Goldman puts it, “Even today, the book is the most visible manifestation of a complex system which includes creating, producing, distributing, marketing and selling.”

We probably all take books, magazines and journals for granted.  Yet the invention of printing was quite an event.

Think about it next time you magically receive Veterinary Practice News in your mail box.


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