What is the greatest invention of all time? Although some people might say it’s the internet, we might never have reached that level of knowledge without the printing press. In fact, there are many answers to the question “Why was the printing press important?” Without the printing press, we wouldn’t have newspapers, and libraries would be luxuries reserved for the fortunate few. That is because before the invention of the printing press, books had to be copied by hand, and most books were expensive works of art.

After the invention of the printing press, books, broadsheets and other printed materials could be manufactured en masse, allowing publishers to disseminate information to a wider audience and giving more people the opportunity to learn to read and write than ever before. Before the printing press, literacy and learning were reserved for the upper classes. The printing press eventually became a great leveler, much like the internet is today.

What year was the printing press invented? Where was it invented? The answers depend on who you ask.

What Is the Greatest Invention of All Time?

If you ask 10 people the question “What is the greatest invention of all time?” you might receive 10 different answers. The irony is that if any of those inventions were created in the time before the internet, we wouldn’t know about them without historical records kept in books. Although some history comes from handwritten accounts like diaries and census information, the majority of it comes to us in the form of ubiquitous secondary or tertiary sources, namely books. Without books, humanity might never have built the computational skills required to put together a vast digital network like the internet. Some might say that the printing press started the World Wide Web – the original analog edition.

What Year Was the Printing Press Invented?

The answer to the question “What year was the printing press invented?” depends on which printing press you’re talking about. Historians disagree on the origins of the first printing press, but two major ones coming from distant parts of the globe both bear the distinction of being first of their kind.

Most historians agree that the first printed books came from China. The oldest printed book ever discovered is "The Diamond Sutra," which dates back to 868 A.D. Other incomplete printed materials survive from an earlier date. To print "The Diamond Sutra," ancient Chinese printers used a woodblock method_._ Woodblock printing requires hand-carving symbols backward onto blocks of wood. Printers then ink the wood blocks and transfer the symbols onto paper, using the blocks like stamps.

Moveable-type printing presses would not come until more than a century later. Historians believe that this type of printing press was invented by Bi Sheng in Yingshan, China around 1,000 A.D. To create his press, instead of wood, Bi Sheng used baked clay tiles that could be rearranged to fit into an iron frame. Bi Sheng’s invention allowed scholarship to flourish in China for hundreds of years. In the subsequent 200 years after its invention, the middle class grew, and collecting books became a status symbol.

Wang Chen, a magistrate, developed a different structure for the printing press in 1297. Instead of using Bi Sheng's clay and iron structure, Wang Chen returned to wood. Wood-block printing before Bi Sheng was unwieldy because the printers made the type out of wood that was too porous, making reuse of the blocks difficult if not impossible. This negated any potential speed in reproducing texts the printers hoped to gain with their press technology. Wang Chen, however, solved the issue of the wood blocks’ reusability. He created a curing process to make the wood more durable. He also invented a table that could swivel out from the base of the press, allowing typesetters the space to reset the letters without having to bend awkwardly over the press’s plate.

The Gutenberg Printing Press

Europeans would not possess printing press technology for another 150 years. The man who developed the European version of the printing press was Johannes Gutenberg. A goldsmith, Gutenberg was skilled in working with metals in fine detail. He used his time as a political exile in France to tinker with printing press variations until he returned to Germany to show off his invention in 1450.

Rather than wood, Gutenberg utilized metal, creating a small print block for each individual letter. The printmaker could then move these letters around to form new words, paragraphs and pages. After the printmaker was satisfied with the letter blocks’ new order, he would then set them into place.

Metal letter blocks were much more durable than their wooden counterparts, allowing Gutenberg to print identical pages in vast quantities that had never been seen before. Gutenberg even invented an ink specifically designed to work with his printing press.

Where Have I Heard the Name Gutenberg Before?

You probably heard the name Gutenberg in reference to the Gutenberg Bible. Before the days of mass printing when Bibles became so commonplace that there was at least one in every hotel room, producing such a valuable, thick book was a costly enterprise. Such a task usually required thousands of man hours, with monks copying out scriptures by hand in their monasteries.

In 1452, Gutenberg produced 180 copies of his Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book printed in entirety on a printing press in the western world. Although 180 copies seems like a paltry number by today’s standards – bestselling authors sell millions of copies of their books – producing 180 copies in such a short span of time was a major feat in 1452. A single monk could not have copied that number of Bibles in his lifetime.

Why Was the Printing Press Important?

You might be quick to answer the question “Why was the printing press important?” with statistics about the speed of printing. With the printing press, printers could create more books and share more knowledge than ever before. However, the fact that the printing press sped up the transfer and dissemination of knowledge is only half the answer. When asking how the printing press changed the world, the answer doesn’t lie in how the printing press worked but rather lies in what it printed.

The printing press came into a Europe that was on a precipice. Numerous Catholic priests were speaking out against the church. In addition to decrying papal excesses, these priests believed their religious practices were ripe for change. Some, like Jan Hus, Martin Luther and others, thought that Christianity should be centered on the individual believer – that the common man did not need a priest to intercede between him and God and, relating to the printing press, that religious services including the reading of the Bible should occur in vernacular language instead of Latin.

The church met these ideas as heresies. Jan Hus was burned at the stake, and Martin Luther was exiled. However, because of the printing press, their ideas spread. Without the printing press, it’s possible that the Protestant Reformation would never have happened. Thus, we can say without a doubt that the printing press changed the world.

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About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.