23rd February 1455 is commonly held to be the publication date of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced on a moveable type printing press.
In our Euro-Centric Imperialist world view of history we were always told that Gutenberg invented the printing press. The truth is a lot more murky. The press was pioneered by the Chinese in the mid 11th Century, and they even invented a moveable type press. However, due to the vagaries of the Chinese alphabet and difficulties in casting metal typefaces, it was never popularised.
China of the 11th century was a closed society. While trade in silks, spices and teas found its way to Europe through the Islamic Caliphate, as it had previously done in Roman times through various Persian empires, the volumes were small, the prices high. Technology did not transfer from place to place with any alacrity.
It was the turmoil of 12th Century Mongol conquest that paved the route for ideas to move between China and the West. Travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta braved the Silk Road and brought back inventions and ideas from the east, such as Rice, Pasta, Gunpowder and Cast Iron. Somewhere along the way the idea of the printing press made its way to Europe.
It was not until the mid 14th century that Gutenberg put all the pieces together. His primary skill was with metal. It was his ability to develop a quick and cheap casting process for the type that opened the door to printing. Type metal is made of a combination of lead, antimony and tin. It does not shrink and deform as it cools in the mold. Gutenberg also developed inks that adhere to the metal type, and then cleanly imprint onto paper, and he developed paper of a quality to suit the pressing process.
The first thing printed was the Gutenberg Bible. Making a bible that was accessible to a wide audience led to a reading of the bible by a large number of scholars. Once they began to see what the bible contained they began to question church dogma. The protestant reformation was born in a printing press.
Very soon after the bible the press was harnessed for other purposes, and became the first mass market mode of communications. Media was born with the news sheet. Political change by the people and for the people was made possible by literacy and was made reality by leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos from printing presses. American independence and the French Revolution were a product of changes in society that began with a press, ink and a sheet of paper.
Sonnet XI; by Christopher Pearse Cranch
IN boyhood’s days we read with keen delight
How young Aladdin rubbed his lamp and raised
The towering Djin whose form his soul amazed,
Yet who was pledged to serve him day and night.
But Gutenberg evoked a giant sprite
Of vaster power, when Europe stood and gazed
To see him rub his types with ink. Then blazed
Across the lands a glorious shape of light,
Who stripped the cowl from priests, the crown from kings,
And hand in hand with Faith and Science wrought
To free the struggling spirit’s limèd wings,
And guard the ancestral throne of sovereign Thought.
The world was dumb. Then first it found its tongue
And spake — and heaven and earth in answer rung.