In the early 1450’s rapid cultural change in Europe fueled a growing need for the rapid and cheap production of written documents. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, borrowed money to develop a technology that could address this serious economic bottleneck.
Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing press that used movable metal type. Gutenberg developed his press by combining features of existing technologies: textile, papermaking and wine presses. Perhaps his most significant innovation, however, was the efficient molding and casting of movable metal type. Each letter was carved into the end of a steel punch which was then hammered into a copper blank. The copper impression was inserted into a mold and a molten alloy made of lead, antimony and bismuth was poured in. The alloy cooled quickly and the resulting reverse image of the letter attached to a lead base could be handled in minutes.
In 1476, William Caxton set up England’s first printing press. Caxton had been a prolific translator and found the printing press to be a marvelous way to amplify his mission of promoting popular literature. Caxton printed and distributed a variety of widely appealing narrative titles including the first popular edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Caxton was an enthusiastic editor and he determined the diction, spelling and usage for all the books he printed. He realized that English suffered from so much regional variation that many people couldn’t communicate with others from their own country. Caxton’s contributions as an editor and printer won him a good portion of the credit for standardizing the English language.
The printing press encouraged the pursuit of personal privacy. Less expensive and more portable books lent themselves to solitary and silent reading. This orientation to privacy was part of an emphasis on individual rights and freedoms that print helped to develop. Print facilitated a focus on fixed, verifiable truth, and on the human ability and right to choose one’s own intellectual path.
In the early 1800’s the development of continuous rolls of paper, a steam-powered press and a way to use iron instead of wood for building presses all added to the efficiency of printing. A number of dramatic technological innovations have since added a great deal of character and dimension to the place of print in culture. Linotype was introduced in 1884 and marked a significant leap in production speed. The typewriter made the production and “look” of standardized print much more widely accessible. The process of setting type continued to go through radical transformations with the development of photo-mechanical composition, cathode ray tubes and laser technologies. The Xerox machine made a means of disseminating print documents available to everyone. Word processing transformed editing and contributed dramatic new flexibility to the writing process. Computer printing has already moved through several stages of innovation, from the first daisy-wheel and dot matrix “impact” printers to common use of the non-impact printers: ink-jet, laser and thermal-transfer.
Both the Internet and interactive multimedia are providing ways of employing the printed word that add new possibilities to print’s role in culture. The printed word is now used for real-time social interaction and for individualized navigation through interactive documents. It is difficult to gauge the social and cultural impact of new media without historical distance, but these innovations will most likely prove to signal another major transformation in the use, influence and character of human communication.