A printing press is a device for evenly printing ink onto a print medium (substrate) such as paper or cloth. The device applies pressure to a print medium that rests on an inked surface made of movable type, thereby transferring the ink. Typically used for texts, the invention and spread of the printing press are widely regarded as among the most influential events in human history, revolutionizing the way people conceive and describe the world they live in, and ushering in the period of modernity.
The world’s first known movable type printing technology was invented and developed in China by the Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048. In Korea, the movable metal type printing technique was invented in the early thirteenth century during the Goryeo Dynasty. However, the Goryeo Dynasty of Korea printed Jikgi by using the similar method about 72 years earlier than Gutenberg, and Jikgi is the world’s first press-printing material that is extant. In the West, the invention of an improved movable type mechanical printing technology in Europe is credited to the German printer Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. The exact date of Gutenberg’s press is debated based on existing screw presses. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, developed a printing system by both adapting existing technologies and making inventions of his own. His newly devised hand mould made possible the rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities. The printing press displaced earlier methods of printing and led to the first assembly line-style mass production of books. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to about 2,000 by typographic block-printing and a few by hand-copying. Books of bestselling authors such as Luther and Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetime.
Printing soon spread from Mainz, Germany to over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries. However the first book in English was not until 25 years later in 1475. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a press became so synonymous with the enterprise of printing that, by metonymy, it lent its name to a new branch of media, the press. The importance of printing as an emblem of modern achievement and of the ability of so-called Moderns to rival the Ancients, in whose teachings much of Renaissance learning was grounded, was enhanced by the frequent juxtaposition of the recent invention of printing to those of firearms and the nautical compass. In 1620, the English philosopher Francis Bacon indeed wrote that these three inventions “changed the whole face and state of the world”.
In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its people led to the rise of proto-nationalism, accelerated by the flowering of the European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin’s status as lingua franca. In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.