Imagine this.  The printing press is now invented, but where are you going to find someone to read what you print?  Well of course there were some who understood this problem.  Read how they solved it and read about some peculiar problems that sprang up as a result of this new technology.

Effects of printing

By 1500 there were hundreds of presses in Europe and the number of books had increased by 100-fold. One of the genuine intellectual heroes of history was Aldus Manutius of Venice. He realized that beyond Bibles, psalters and official forms, there was a vast market if only somebody would print things worth reading. At this time, Western Europe was seeing an influx or refugees from the Byzantine Empire, which had finally fallen to the Turks. Manutius put them to work producing Greek grammars and dictionaries. Why? So readers would be able to read the Greek classics which the refugees were also bringing, and which Manutius was going to print and sell. Manutius created the first cheap mass-market books. To make the books more compact, he devised a smaller type face (now called italic) and in so doing gave Western culture another essential feature - the fine print.

He was also one of the first innovators to realize that, to make an innovation work, often an entire infrastructure had to be created; to sell the Greek classics, he first had to teach people Greek, which in turn meant that he had to create Greek reference books. By the time Aldus Manutius died in 1515, every single major work from antiquity was in print. Barring utter catastrophe, never again would Europe lose touch with its ancient knowledge. In recognition of his achievements, the citizens of Venice decked his funeral gondola not with the traditional flowers, but with books.

Another Venetian publisher worthy of respect is Daniel Bomberg, who set into type the Talmud, or collected repository of Jewish commentary on the law and the Bible. The Talmud had been a frequent target of destruction and desecration during attacks on the Jews, and only a handful of manuscript copies survive. Bomberg preserved Jewish learning and culture the way Manutius did Greek.

The availability of books meant a vast increase in literacy, and not just among the elites. Periodically, the elites debate whether or not the lower classes should be educated, and how much, and usually before they are done the lower classes settle the issue by educating themselves. So it was with printing. We know there was a large self-taught literate market among the lower classes because we have surviving examples of things published for them: drinking songs, collections of bawdy verses and satires, and so on.

In scholarly fields, printing led to the rapid dissemination of ideas. One reason Martin Luther did not suffer the fate of Jan Hus a century earlier is that, within a few months of his posting his famous Theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, bootleg copies were being printed all over Europe. Luther called the printing press the "last and greatest blessing of God" (probably not envisioning Mad magazine or Playboy when he said it!)

Printing led to the standardization and simplification of spelling. Gutenberg's type case was a lot more complex than a present one, because scribes had evolved myriad shorthand sybols over the centuries and readers would have thought their intelligence insulted if words had been spelled out entirely. As time went on and mass markets developed of readers who were not familiar with these scribal abbreviations (why is "abbreviation" such a long word?), they were dropped. Two that linger on are "&", derived from a shorthand form of the Latin "et", for "and", and "%", which started off as "per centum", then "per cent", then "p/c", then finally "%."

Finally, printing also provided a powerful stimulus toward accuracy, since works were now more likely to be read by others as knowledgeable in a subject as the author. Printing led to a profound change in our concept of "fact." Before printing, documents were suspect as too easily forged. Eyewitnesses and personal testimony were considered more reliable. Printing made written documents more authoritative than personal testimony. It was hard to fake printed documents. Before printing, people relied on memory to store facts. Printing changed the concept of "fact" to "printed fact", as seen in the modern statement "show me in black and white."

Last modified: Friday, 12 February 2016, 8:42 AM