Which invention or innovation has had the most positive impact on the development of civilisation and the greatest benefit for mankind? A strong contender is the printing press.
Johannes Gutenberg (1398 – 1468) was a German blacksmith, goldsmith and printer who invented the printing press and movable type. Before Gutenberg all books had been hand written or stamped out with fixed wood blocks. Gutenberg combined two existing ideas – the power of a wine press and the detail of a coin punch to create the printing press.
His invention of mechanical movable type printing started a revolution in communication throughout Europe. It facilitated the spread of knowledge in the form of printed books and pamphlets. This fuelled the Renaissance and the Reformation. There followed the Age of Enlightenment and the sharing of Scientific Knowledge.
There were many details which Gutenberg had to master. He invented a process for mass-producing movable type based on new metal alloys. He developed oil-based ink. He adapted screw presses used for squeezing grapes. His great achievement was to combine all these components into a practical system for the mass production of printed books.
In Renaissance Europe the arrival of inexpensive printed books started an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. Revolutionary ideas flowed across the continent and challenged the powers of established political and religious elites. Many consider Gutenberg’s printing press to be one of the most influential inventions in history. In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium. In terms of the impact on mass communication the inventions of paper and of the internet are the only two which come close to the printing press.
There are lessons for innovators. Many great innovations are really recombinations of existing ideas. Gutenberg’s great innovation involved combining the humble wine press and coin punch to make the mighty printing press. Another lesson is that great innovations have unintended and dramatic consequences. Gutenberg presses were originally used to print the Bible in Latin. However printing presses were subsequently used to print seditious, heretical and revolutionary texts which disrupted society and ushered in a new age.
Johannes Gutenberg features in a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.