A History of Letterpress

 Johannes Gutenberg  to Thomas Paine  

The invention of letterpress helped the spread of knowledge and even caused revolution.
A case in point: American Independence was helped by the letterpress printed pamphlets of  Thomas Paine, a resident of Lewes in the late 18th century. See Tom Paine Printing Press

Government Repression

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the South African government.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulag by the Russian authorities.  Ai Weiwei is hounded by the Chinese government. Those in power have always been wary of people gaining too much knowledge and have tried to suppress ideas that are different from theirs.

At the time of writing there is unrest in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East such as Egypt, Libya and Syria.  News of events around the world can reach us almost instantly. The reason that people are finding it easier to communicate is because we have television, mobile phones and cameras with video facilities.  Above all, we now have the Internet and can quickly send information around the world.

The invention of letterpress printing was the Internet revolution of the Middle Ages.

Knowledge and Communication

It is said that knowledge is power.

In the Middle Ages the Christian church dominated the lives of everyone from peasant to King.  The church held the knowledge in the form of the Bible which was hand-written in Latin.  The majority of the population were unable to read. Hand production of bibles was slow so there were few of them, which also made them expensive.

The Church held on to the knowledge held in the Bible and communicated it through priests.

Enter Johannes Gutenberg

Although there may have been other people experimenting at the same time, it is generally accepted that around the year 1450 Gutenberg, working in Mainz, Germany, invented printing from movable type. He knew about the casting of metal because his family worked in the mint producing coins for the church authorities. With the ability to produce multiple copies of each letter of the alphabet in lead, Gutenberg was able to assemble the letters to form a page of the Bible and print many copies before taking the letters apart and re-assembling them into another page ready for printing. Many copies of the Bible could be produced in less time than the scribes could write them.

Letterpress printing can now be seen as the the first example of mechanical mass production that enabled the written word to become accessible to a wider audience. The closed shop of the Church/political circle that controlled information had been prised open. The irony is that the closed shop was later replicated by the Guilds and Trades Unions to protect the workers’ standard of living.


Comments are closed.