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Demonstrating the Gutenberg printing Press

Demonstration of the Gutenberg printing press at the International Printing Museum in Carson, California at 315 Torrance Blvd.

By the middle of the 15th century several print masters were on the verge of perfecting the techniques of printing with movable metal type. The first man to demonstrate the practicability of movable type was Johannes Gutenberg.

(c.1398-1468), the son of a noble family of Mainz, Germany. A former stone-cutter and goldsmith, Gutenberg devised an alloy of lead, tin and antinomy that would melt at low temperature, cast well in the die, and be durable in the press. It was then possible to use and reuse the separate pieces of type, as long as the metal in which they were cast did not wear down, simply by arranging them in the desired order. The mirror image of each letter (rather than entire words or phrases), was carved in relief on a small block. Individual letters, easily movable, were put together to form words; words separated by blank spaces formed lines of type; and lines of type were brought together to make up a page. Since letters could be arranged into any format, an infinite variety of texts could be printed by reusing and resetting the type.

By 1452, with the aid of borrowed money, Gutenberg began his famous Bible project. Two hundred copies of the two-volume Gutenberg Bible were printed, a small number of which were printed on vellum. The expensive and beautiful Bibles were completed and sold at the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair, and cost the equivalent of three years' pay for the average clerk. Roughly fifty of all Gutenberg Bibles survive today.

In spite of Gutenberg's efforts to keep his technique a secret, the printing press spread rapidly. Before 1500 some 2500 European cities had acquired presses. German masters held an early leadership, but the Italians soon challenged their preeminence. The Venetian printer Aldus Manutius published works, notably editions of the classics.

The immediate effect of the printing press was to multiply the output and cut the costs of books. It thus made information available to a much larger segment of the population who were, of course, eager for information of any variety. Libraries could now store greater quantities of information at much lower cost. Printing also facilitated the dissemination and preservation of knowledge in standardized form -- this was most important in the advance of science, technology and scholarship. The printing press certainly initiated an "information revolution" on par with the Internet today. Printing could and did spread new ideas quickly and with greater impact.

Printing stimulated the literacy of lay people and eventually came to have a deep and lasting impact on their private lives. Although most of the earliest books dealt with religious subjects, students, businessmen, and upper and middle class people bought books on all subjects. Printers responded with moralizing, medical, practical and travel manuals. Printing provided a superior basis for scholarship and prevented the further corruption of texts through hand copying. By giving all scholars the same text to work from, it made progress in critical scholarship and science faster and more reliable.

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