The printing press revolution

Gutenberg ‘invented’ the printing press in 1436. Some argue that he didn’t really invent the printing press because most of the technologies that he used had been invented by others. His main contribution was to combine those technologies into a new business model. He was the first to figure out how to take advantage of several improvements that others had made in separate areas of metallurgy, moveable type, paper, presses, ink, book binding, scripts, and literacy to produce an entirely new kind of publishing industry. Other than his cleverness (and luck) in bringing those technologies together into a new package, his main technological innovations were small: an improved formula for ink that stuck to metal type better, and his matrix for casting better moveable type which he may have independently reinvented too. Gutenberg had been a goldsmith, so his skill set was perfect for developing better moveable type.

Moveable type is the practice of casting each letter of the alphabet on a separate piece of metal which are arranged in a frame to produce words and sentences.  That way the same bunch of letters can be quickly and cheaply rearranged to print any combination of words for every possible page.  Previously, European printers had laboriously carved each unique page in its entirety on a block of wood or other material.  It could take days to just get a single page of text ready for printing.  With moveable type, the pre-cast letters could be quickly rearranged to produce a new page of text in under an hour.


Regardless of how much Gutenberg invented himself, his innovation dramatically increased the output of books and decreased their cost. Ironically Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt by 1455. He was not financially successful and when he died in 1468, he was largely unknown and his grave is now lost.

By Tentotwo Data from: Buringh, Eltjo; van Zanden, Jan Luiten: “Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries”, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2009), (417, table 2), CC BY-SA 3.0

For example, by 1424, (after being open for 215 years) Cambridge University library still only owned 122 books total and each book had a average value equal to an average farm or vineyard. In market value, their library owned as much as 122 farms worth of books that could all easily fit on my office bookshelf with the kind of printing that we have today. And their books didn’t hold as much information as modern books because the paper (or sheepskin) was much thicker and their handwritten letters were much larger than modern printing. For example, the bible was originally divided into 72 separate books because it was too heavy and expensive to try to combine them into a single volume. That is why we still call them the books of the Bible rather than the chapters of the Bible. A single Bible was originally a library collection of 72 separate books or more depending on which holy books were included in the cannon. Even a half century later after dramatic improvements in paper and printing, a complete Gutenberg Bible still weighted about 30 pounds if printed on paper and nearly 50 pounds printed on parchment, so it was still nearly impossible to handle all that information in a single book. By 1500, there were 15,000 books in print for a rich library like Cambridge to choose from and the price had come down so much that books were perhaps 30 times more affordable (judging from the increased labor productivity in printing seen below).

The printing industry was the first modern manufacturing industry because it was the first capital-intensive form of mass production using interchangeable parts (movable type) and the first example of manufacturing’s ability to dramatically increase production and reduce costs. Nevertheless, it is not associate with the industrial revolution because it didn’t have any measurable effect on the median standard of living. Most people were still too poor to own any books even at the dramatically reduced cost. And at least 90% were illiterate even some people who had money didn’t have any use for books. Books have always been an insignificant fraction of one percent of GDP both before Gutenburg and after. Industrialization didn’t affect ordinary people until it reduced the prices of things that most people spent most of their budget on like clothing, food, and fuel. Industrialization didn’t start to lower those prices until about 1800.

Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, & Steel, helps explain why somewhere in Eurasia conquered the world, but he didn’t explain why Europe conquered Asian civilizations to a more limited extent. The printing press gives an explanation. In particular, it explains why Europe subjugated China and not vice versa. The printing press required an alphabet to work efficiently. Printing didn’t take off in China until the early 1900s, almost 500 years after it revolutionized European society! By the time printing took off in China, lithographic printing had been invented, and that may have been why moveable type didn’t take off in China. The complex Chinese scripts may have been easier to manage with Lithographic printing than moveable type. Even then, it was slower and more difficult to print in Chinese than for languages that use alphabets. It is probably no coincidence, but China did not take off economically until the computer age in the 1970s when printing in Chinese finally became as cheap and easy to produce as in languages that use an alphabet.

Most people think that Gutenberg invented moveable type, but he was far from the first. Moveable type had been invented numerous times in history before, but earlier inventors lacked the other technologies that made it finally become successful when Gutenberg reinvented it yet once again. Jared Diamond points out that moveable type was reinvented several times in history such as in 1700 B.C. in Crete (the Phaistos disk), and again in China and Korea over a half millennium before Gutenberg. Moveable type didn’t revolutionize those societies because they didn’t have other supporting technologies.

Gutenberg’s development of typecasting from metal dies, to overcome the potentially fatal problem of nonuniform type size, depended on many metallurgical developments: steel for letter punches, brass or bronze alloys (later replaced by steel) for dies, lead for molds, and a tin-zinc-lead alloy for type. Gutenberg’s press was derived from screw presses in use for making wine and olive oil, while his ink was an oil-based improvement on existing inks. The alphabetic scripts that medieval Europe inherited from three millennia of alphabet development lent themselves to printing with movable type, because only a few dozen letter forms had to be cast, as opposed to the thousands of signs required for Chinese writing. (Diamond, 1999, p259)

Not only did moveable type not revolutionize China when the Chinese invented it in the 1100s, it still didn’t revolutionize Chinese society for centuries after Gutenberg’s innovations revolutionized societies with alphabetic script. Japan is a possible exception that proves the rule. Japanese language printing took off in Japan much earlier than in China by adopting alphabetical writing. Japanese printing first started with a Romanized script that the Jesuits developed in 1590 which never took off, but the Japanese also had their own kind of phonetic ‘alphabet’ called hiragana with 46 characters that could be adapted to moveable type. That may have helped Japan develop more literacy and a bigger printing industry than China developed. The printing press caused writing systems to spread and the phonetic writing systems had a huge advantage. They took over the entire planet except China (plus a combination of phonetic script and Chinese characters used in Japan and Korea today).


Nick Szabo wrote an excellent essay entitled Book Consciousness which he has unfortunately taken down, but as I had been assigning it to my students, I had made a copy which I’ll repost here:

Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein and others have described the importance of the “printing revolution” to European developments such the Reformation, Renaissance, and science. According to Eisenstein, printing finally foiled the entropy that had destroyed the vast majority of written works since ancient times. Printing also enlarged the bookshelves of scholars all over Europe: by a factor of fifty or more by the middle of the 16th century.

I’d go even farther than Eisenstein. Printing soon brought literacy to vast numbers of people (eventually to the vast majority of us). Printing, especially printing in newly standardized vernaculars, changed the very consciousness of people, and turned a small corner of the world, Western Europe, into a culture that in many ways conquered the world. Widespread decentralized printing and the accompanying book markets, new schools, and rise of literacy gave rise to a new form of consciousness — book consciousness.

Columbus was among the first generation of navigators who had been reading avidly and widely since a child. On his bookshelf was Marco Polo’s Travels. On his voyages he carried maps made by geographers who had been literate since they were children, and he carried astronomical tables that had been printed widely across Europe. These tables had been made by a Hungarian-Italian mathematician whose bookshelf was full of ancient Greek science and mathematics. Such information had been rather inferior and far less available just a few decades before.

With the easy conquest by tiny Portugal of Asia’s vast and ancient sea trade routes, rapidly literizing Western Europeans were by the early 16th century demonstrating a vast superiority in naval affairs. In navigation as in battle officers using accurate charts and astronomical tables were at a premium. (Europeans did not have quite such good luck on land against the Turks). Western Europeans would retain completely uncontested (except among each other) naval superiority on the world’s oceans until the Japanese victory over Russia in the early 20th century. The Japanese by then had long since taken up printing and had a very well read population . Even on the ground by the 18th century English merchants, officers, and civil servants, practically all of them literate and widely read since young children, were finding it quite easy to conquer and take over the administration in far larger and otherwise highly advanced civilizations like India.

Soon after the spread of the printing press, the very fundamentals of organization in Western Europe began to change. In the late Middle Ages organizations, even royal and papal bureaucracies and banking “super-companies”, rarely engaged more than a few dozen employees. Organizational size came up against the severe limit of the Dunbar number. By the end of the 16th century, the colonial companies and bureaucracies of Spain and Portugal were vast, highly literate, and well coordinated. Officer corps had often been raised on military books and thus able to draw lessons from a wide variety of ancient and recent battles. Even a minor salt extractor in Wear, England, was employing 300 men by the mid 16th century. (Large organizations in manufacturing would largely have to wait until the 18th century and the industrial revolution, however).

Before book consciousness there had been no national languages, but only a range of often mutually incomprehensible dialects and in Western Europe the language of the tiny literate elite, Latin. With newly unified national vernaculars, organizations were able to coordinate and grow in an unprecedented manner. A much larger group of people, raised on the same written language, increasingly also came to look and speak similarly and become far more mutually trusted. It was the birth of national loyalty and nationwide webs of trust. The “tribe” to which we are instinctively loyal vastly increased in size. The pool of already somewhat trusted “same tribe” people from which a bureaucracy could recruit new members vastly increased. National polities and militaries were able to coordinate political, economic, and battlefield strategies in an unprecedented manner. The 16th century saw the first major growth of the joint-stock corporation, enabling far more capital to be invested in the enlarging organizations that engaged in mining and manufacture as well as government and conquest. This development is probably a response to the new ability to form larger organizations, since the basic ideas (corporate law, shares of stock, etc.) had already been in use in Europe for quite some time. Some of the early English 16th century joint-stock companies included military expeditions (Drake’s privateering voyages and naval actions were financed through joint stock companies: a different company for each expedition), trading and slaving companies (the Muscovy and Guinea companies) and mining and manufacturing companies (the Royal Mining Company and the Royal Batteries & Mines Company). The most famous became the English East India Company, but many of the American colonies were also joint-stock corporations. The first widely traded and initially most successful joint-stock company was the Dutch East India company, which quickly grew far beyond the Dunbar number to have thousands of employees.

Book consciousness changed almost every profession. Good books on a trade could greatly increase the knowledge imparted during apprenticeships, and indeed eventually led to the end of the apprenticeship system. Meanwhile, widely printed books on mathematics and science, such as Euclid’s Geometry, gave knowledge that could be used in a wide variety of occupations, and training was often restructured to assume and build upon such new general knowledge. This led to a profound change in labor productivity, moving mankind away from the Malthusian curve and (along with the expansion of organizational size beyond the Dunbar limit) eventually to the industrial revolution.

A typical example of the rise of book consciousness was the radical improvement in how cases were reported in the English legal system by the late 16th century. For the first time, cases and statutes were widely and accurately cited. This reflected the fact that judges, barristers, attorneys, and even some of the parties had for the first time printed books of statutes and cases at their fingertips — instead of having to find the single copy of a scroll hidden away in some monk’s or bureaucrat’s library. The first great English opinion writer, Sir Edward Coke, dates from this period. In turn, the wide availability of printed statute and case law led to basic changes in the way we interpret and view the law.

Almost invariably, during the colonial period, when largely illiterate cultures (i.e. cultures where most of the second-tier nobility, military officers, and merchants, and almost all craftsmen and farmers, had not been raised on books) were encountered by literate Europeans, the latter described the former with severe epithets, such as “savages.” This makes our forbears seem odious to us, who understand that all human races are capable of literacy, and indeed by now book consciousness has spread to most of the globe and most of us encounter a wide variety of highly literate people every day. However, at least in the 16th century for book-raised Western Europeans this was not so much a racial prejudice as a largely accurate observation. “Savage” was applied not only to Neolithic Africans and Americans, but also to Irish backlanders and Scottish highlanders. There was a similar Western European attitude to otherwise very advanced civilizations in India and China. From the 16th century onward, any culture that did not have book consciousness was a culture of savages.

It’s possible that today the availability of thousands of times still more material to read, readily accessible by search engine, and the expansion of a small number language groups (but especially English) to a worldwide real-time network is creating a new “Internet consciousness.” People within this network may soon come to see people outside of it as savages.

…If I had to pin down three key differences between East Asia and European reception of printing they’d be (1) a small phonetic alphabet is more suited to printing and was already standard and widely used in Europe, (2) the decentralized nature of European printing business (Europe within a couple decades of Gutenberg had many competing printers not directly controlled by a government or religious organization), and (3) the widespread nature of European learning — especially the universities and the already literate merchants. The need for universities in turn was driven by the almost uniquely European need for those much-maligned lawyers. There’s a strong relationship here to the European adversarial legal system (as opposed to bureaucratic legal systems dominant in Asia).

The Chinese language has about 50,000 characters rather than the 26 used in the European alphabets, so even though the Chinese invented printing, it never became widely used because it was so expensive to do, and it was more of an art form than a means of mass media. Lots of civilizations had been printing with custom-carved wooden blocks, but Gutenberg’s great innovation was metal moveable type which finally made printing cheap and easy to do. The Chinese did not get moveable type until the late 1800s or so which constrained their development relative to the Europeans.

Nick argues that the rise of large private companies was also impossible without mass literacy and easy written communication. In particular, the corporation was impossible because it was a form of mass democracy which relied upon cheap printed communication to coordinate shareholders, but large private companies of any form had been impractical before Gutenberg.  Although there had been a few relatively short-lived large ‘supercompanies’ in the city states of northern Italy such as the Compagnia dei Bardi, they were unusual as Nick says:

The Bardi supercompany was quite exceptional and didn’t last very long. You’d have a very hard time finding any other examples in the entire stretch of civilization from the Sumerians in 3,000 BC until the European 16th century where Dunbar number (really a range between about 100 and 200 people where organization becomes quite difficult) was exceeded for any long period of time by a commercial organization. The Dutch East India Company, with its managers and most of its employees raised on the same common language due to printing, was the first company to do so, and quite exceptionally so (it had by the 17th century over 10,000 employees if I recall correctly) and many other companies (mostly English) soon followed within a century.

This radical change in the ability of businesses to organize employees the leads directly to European empires, and later to the industrial revolution. It cries out to be explained. It corresponds to the rise of literacy in a common language. The most likely cause is the expansion of the perceived “ethnic boundary” created by language …or the “tribal illusion” and resulting network of easily trusted people… This phenomenon explains the exceptional (but comparatively very humble) pre-printing-press example of the Florentine supercompanies as well. But had it not been for the printing press that Renaissance, like many earlier ones, would have died and been largely forgotten.

The Dunbar number is important in all this because it’s a psychological limit on how many people we can get to know well enough to develop the long-term relationships needed for solid trust. …Christopher Allen… has observed that corporate culture changes radically as the size of organizations grow larger and in particular as they exceed the Dunbar range…

Before the European printing press commercial organizations almost never exceed the Dunbar number. …[T]he early 14th century “supercompanies”…[like the the Compagnia dei Bardi], only barely and temporarily exceed the Dunbar range. This was probably made possible by the unusually high level of literacy in a common language …among the Florentines.

Large organizations were only possible when people’s activities were coordinated by religious belief (church organizations) or threat of force (government & military organizations).  Economic motivation (wages & earnings) were insufficient for coordinating workers across a very large organization before the printing press.  Nick continues in another post:

Printing was invented in the middle of the 15th century. Books were cheap by the end of that century. Thereafer they just got cheaper. At first books printed en masse what scribes had long considered to be the classics. Eventually, however, books came to contain a wide variety of useful information important to various trades. For example, legal cases became much more thoroughly recorded and far more easily accessible, facilitating development of the common law. Similar revolutions occurred in medicine and a wide variety of trades, and undoubtedly eventually occurred in the building trades that were the source of Clark’s data.
Printing played a crucial role in the Reformation which saw the schisms from the Roman Church and the birth in particular of Calvinism. The crucial thing to observe is that, while per Clark the gains from investment in skills did not increase relative to unskilled labor, with the availability of cheap books and with the proper content the costs of investing in the learning did radically decrease for many skills. Apprenticeships that used to take seven years could be compressed into a few years reading from books (much cheaper than bothering the master for those years) combined with a short period learning on the job. This wouldn’t have been a straightforward process as it required not just cheap books with specialized content about the trades, but some redesigning of the work itself and up-front investment by parents in their children’s literacy. Thus, it would have required major cultural changes. That is why, while under my theory cheap books were the catalyst that drove mankind out of the Malthusian trap, many institutional innovations, which took over a century to evolve, had to be made to take advantage of those books to fundamentally change the economy.

Probably the biggest change required is that literacy entails a very large up-front investment. In the 17th century that investment would have been undertaken primarily by the family. Such an investment requires delayed gratification — the trait Weber considered crucial to the rise of capitalism and derived from Calvinsim. However, Calvinist delayed gratification under my revised theory didn’t cause capitalism via an increased savings rate, as Weber et. al. postulated, but rather caused parents to undertake a costly practice of investing in their children’s literacy. Once that investment was made, the children could take advantage of books to learn skills with unprecedented ease and to skill levels not previously possible. So the overall investment in skills did not increase, but instead the focus of that investment shifted from long apprenticeships of young adults to the literacy of children. At the same time, the productivity of that investment greatly increased, and the result was overall higher productivity.

Protestants, and in particular sects like the Quakers derived from Calvinism, plaid a leading role in the early industrial revolution in England. For example the Quaker Darby family pioneered iron processing techniques and the use of iron for railroads and in architecture.

Investment in literacy would have both enabled and been motivated by the famous Protestant belief that people should read the Bible for themselves rather than depending on a priest to read it for them. This process would have started in the late 15th century among an elite of merchants and nobles, giving rise to the Reformation, but might not have propagated amongst the tradesmen Clark tracks until the 17th century. It is with the spread of Huguenot, Puritan, Presbyterian, etc. literacy culture to tradesmen that we see the 17th century revolution in real wages and the first major move away from the Malthusian curve.

Max Weber famously theorized that the Protestants pioneered the industrial revolution and got rich sooner than the Catholic regions of Europe because he said the Catholics were lazy and the Protestants were more industrious. A less chauvinistic and scientifically measurable theory would be that the Protestants believed that they must learn to read the Bible and developed literacy to satisfy their religious duty whereas the Catholics believed that the church should interpret the Bible. It so happens that the latter is a better predictor of industrialization than religious sect because literacy helps explain why northern Italy, a Catholic area, industrialized earlier than surrounding regions and why Scandinavia didn’t industrialize early despite being Protestant. Industrialization tended to favor areas that developed printing industries:

printing cities

The big anomaly on this map would seem to be England which industrialized first despite not having a significant printing industry, but this map only shows the spread of printing in the first fifty years through 1500.  Printing in England took off soon after that and England could not have led the industrial revolution if a thriving printing industry had not revolutionized English society first.

Similarly, many Jewish sects thrived economically in European cities after the rise of printing and they too had a longstanding religious tradition that achieved near universal literacy among males.

So much like the internet which also has not yet increased measured GDP, the printing press revolutionized the rest of society and eventually directly contributed to the industrial revolution.  Printing also caused numerous other revolutions in addition to the industrial revolution.

  1. Religious revolution ← protestant reformation
  2. Political revolution → Mass democracy
  3. Scientific revolution ← the rest of the industrial revolution depended on this.
  4. Capitalism.  There wasn’t capitalism before the printing press because writing was too expensive to use it to organize society and capitalism requires writing for contracts, property rights, financial markets (insurance, stocks, etc.), the rule of law, and corporations.
  5. Colonial revolution.  Columbus might not have sailed across the ocean if the elites of Europe hadn’t been reading about theories regarding sailing west to get to China. Then the conquistadors would not have been able to learn from previous conquests and discoveries without cheap written communication.  There would not have been sufficient communication power to organize the corporations that colonized India, Indonesia, New England, and elsewhere.

Information used to spread VERY slowly

It is hard to imagine how slowly information used to spread before the modern era. Goods used to spread much faster than information.  For example, for thousands of years, silk was traded across thousands of miles along the silk road, but the information about how to produce silk didn’t travel.  Rice production also took thousands of years to make it from Asia to Europe and Africa where it revolutionized diet after the late 1400s in Italy and later elsewhere.  Although corn spread around the world rapidly, the nixtamalization process that made it much more nutritious never made it out of North America.

Similarly, although the printing press spread rapidly across the European cultures, it took hundreds of years for Book Culture to spread to many parts of Asia and Africa.  Without Book Culture, they couldn’t develop corporations, science, democracy, nor the industrial revolution.  But in the past half century, the book and literacy has finally transformed almost the entire globe and almost all poor nations have been catching up with rich countries in economic development for at least three decades now.

Posted in Development
2 comments on “The printing press revolution
  1. […] because new information technologies has been helping knowledge spread faster.  In the 1500s the printing press opened up the age of discovery and the industrial revolution for European nations which led them to grow much faster than nations […]

  2. […] as mass democracies could not exist before the spread of literacy and cheap communication that Gutenberg’s printing press brought about, corporations were impossible for all of history for the same reason.  It was simply impossible to […]

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