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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Change the World-Go Bankrupt

By Tom Morrow

The development of the printed word is one of the world’s most influential inventions. Regardless of your religious beliefs or philosophy, the first printings of the Bible in the western world was the catalyst for spurring wide-spread education and literacy, bringing the nations of the world closer together.

Printing with movable type can be traced back to 1040 AD, invented by a Chinaman, Bi Sheng, who began using movable wood blocks to print. In 1392, the Koreans were using movable copper type to print. But the dawn of modern-day typesetting began in the mid-1400 by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany.

Unlike his Oriental counterparts, Gutenberg’s process made printing practical, which led to a revolution in mass communications. Until the advancements of the computer, Gutenberg’ method remained the principal way to print until the late 20th century.

Gutenberg’s method centered around the key innovation involving the making of a punch-stamped mold that could cast large amount of metal type with precision for a new kind of press using oil-based ink. His first printing job for mass distribution was 180 copies of the Bible in 1455. Until that time, the Bible was painstakingly done by hand by clergymen, taking as long as 20 years just to produce on volume. That first Gutenberg edition was printed in Latin.

His technology spread throughout Europe and by 1520, more than 200 different editions of the Bible had been produced. While Gutenberg printed his first volumes in Latin, printers began producing other books, posters, simple news announcements in their native languages, which made books on all subjects readily available to not just scholars, but to the general population. This resulted in people becoming more literate. News and ideas spread quickly and widely, bringing the world closer together.

Gutenberg never profited from his invention. In fact, it caused him to end up bankrupt. While under development, he had financial problems, and to make matters worse, his financial backer, Johann Fust, became impatient and successfully sued Gutenberg, forcing him to relinquish all claims to his printing process. Fust went on to make a fortune from Bible sales. Gutenberg died in 1468 broke and in relative obscurity.

One of America’s most famous early printers was Benjamin Franklin, who began as an apprentice to his older brother. His most famous printing was “Poor Richard’s Almanac, which was a pamphlet publication of wit, humor, and biting editorializing against the British before the Revolutionary War.

The printed word is the most effective weapon used against tyranny, as well as conveying great thought and ideas. Here in the United States, one of the greatest example of the printed word is the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. By printing on a mass scale, early Americans were able to read in detail what our government was about and how it worked. Without the printed word, ideas and laws are only open to interpretation. The idea of “literature” would hardly exist without the words being put down on paper – and, today, the computer screen.

Today, Johannes Gutenberg’s name is barely remembered, yet he remains one of the world’s most influential figures in history. True, that if it wasn’t Gutenberg, someone else would have come up with the idea of movable type, but he’s the one who did it first. Someone has to be first.

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