The History of the Printing Press

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History would have us believe the first printed book, like so many inventions, came out of China. The publication, The Diamond Sutra appeared in 868 AD and the print type was most certainly made from clay. Others insist that there were earlier examples of printed books or certainly sheets, but experts have not come forward with either evidence or titles.

However, there is a lot of evidence telling us the first printing press originated in what is now modern day Germany, which at the time comprised a series of princely states. The first, or the Guttenberg Press came into being somewhere between 1436 and 1440. The inventor, Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith and inventor. The typeface was composed of at first wooden and then later metal letters. It is probably true to say that this invention played a very significant part in the shaping of thinking and learning in the history of the World. Prior to Gutenberg books had to be copied, by hand usually by monks who acted as scribes.

These illuminated manuscripts were truly beautiful pieces of work, but the costs involved put them well beyond the means of the ordinary man in the street. Thus they remained the possessions of the Church, the monarchy and the very rich. Gutenbergs press changed all that and suddenly the written word was available to the middle classes and all who could read. This revolution certainly resulted in the ongoing Renaissance and later the Reformation of religion, which loosened the stranglehold that Catholicism held on Europe. Gutenbergs major contribution to this movement was his printing of the Bible in 1452. Interestingly the Gutenberg Printing Press remained the standard form of printing right up until the twentieth century. True improvements such offset printing occurred along the way, but his invention had a huge impact on civilization.

Those of us educated under the British School system were of the impression that William Caxton was the father of printing. Unfortunately this notion is untrue. William Caxton was actually a wool merchant who was initially apprenticed to one time Lord Mayor of London, Robert Large. On Larges death he moved to the magnificent medieval city of Bruges in Belgium, the then center of the textile industry. He was very successful and became an advisor to Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Charless wife was Margaret sister of the English King Edward IV. Caxton and the Duchess became firm friends and it was she who persuaded him to translate and later publish what was to become the first printed book in English.

The Recuyell of the Historyies of Troye, was originally written in French by Raoul Le Fvre. The book appeared in 1474, 22 years after the Gutenberg Bible. Ironically, Caxton had to go to Germany and study printing in Cologne before returning to Bruges where he set up his own printing works. I suppose the Belgians could also claim to be the home in which the first book printed in English was to appear.

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