What do you think is mankind’s most important invention? Is it the computer, the telephone, or the wheel? Many people say that it is the printing press, a machine that allows us to reproduce unlimited copies of books and documents.
Before the printing press, books were copied by hand. Ancient Roman book publishers sometimes sold as many as 5,000 copies of a book that had been copied by slaves. But copying a book was such a timeconsuming and expensive activity that often only a few copies of each book were made. As a result, only a small fraction of the population had access to books and learned to read.
While the printing press was invented in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Germany, printing had already been around for quite some time. Around 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, carved stones serving as seals or stamps were used to make impressions in clay. Later in China, wooden blocks were carved with text, coated in ink and then pressed onto paper or cloth. Instead of using a page-sized block of carved wood, however, Gutenberg’s printing press used small, metal blocks, each with just a single letter. To print a page, all the printer had to do was assemble the necessary letters and start the machine. Whereas wooden blocks would quickly become damaged, the metal letter blocks were durable, and if one was found to have a flaw, it could easily be replaced without affecting the entire page. What Gutenberg achieved with his printing press was the ability to mass-produce books quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.
After 1450, thousands of copies of a popular book or newspaper could be printed rapidly and inexpensively. Books and newspapers with ideas and images from all over the world became widely available to the public. The impact of Gutenberg’s machine is sometimes compared to the impact of the Internet, as it has allowed millions of people to gain access to new and exciting knowledge. As knowledge fuels human intelligence, mankind’s astounding technological and scientific progress over the last 500 years owes no small debt to Gutenberg’s remarkable printing press.