The printing press happened at just the right time….

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The emergence of the printing press, and the revolutionary changes it portended, were the perfect cultural storm.

The result of Johannes Gutenburg, a German goldsmith, inventing the printing press in 1451 was the quick and accurate spread of information which reached a wider reading public and increased literacy. From that came the spread of controversial new ideas that the Church couldn’t stop and the accelerated spread of accurate data and research that fed the Scientific Revolution during the Enlightenment.

Big deal! It might have happened anyway, and the results might have been as spectacular.

But what makes it far more extraordinary was the convergence of other critical elements that made the printing press work.

(1) Rag paper from China reached Europe from Muslim Spain, and more rags for more paper came from the mounds of old clothes left by the victims of the Black Death. Plus the discards from the survivors who inherited family lands, bought lots of new clothes, and left their discards as rags to be sold. The rags were put into the new squeeze press that made paper so the type could be pressed uniformly on it.

(3) More monks died, faster, crowded into monasteries while the plague raged, which reduced the number of book copiers. The higher cost of copying books increased the incentive to find a cheaper way to do the copying.

(4) As one result of the decline of the power of the Church during and after the Black Death, secular ideas increased (see the Italian Renaissance). One idea was how to develop oil-based inks that adhered to metal type.

(5) Chinese wood block printing came to Europe from the Muslims, from which durable interchangeable metal type emerged that printed every letter evenly on paper.

So with a sudden glut of relatively cheap and usable paper, ink that dried and adhered to metal type, a growing demand for books that couldn’t be met as before, and interchangeable type to produce the books, the printing press was a boon for us, publishers. It was almost a miracle, but then came the computer…

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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