At the close of every year, organizations often make selections as to what the best movie, song or event of the previous twelve months may have been. The same happens at the end of other periods of time, such as seasons, decades and even centuries. Leading up to the end of the second millennium, many of our most prominent made selections about some of the most important people, places and things of the past thousand years.
In 1997, Time-Life Magazine compiled a list of the most important inventions of the time. Ahead of its close rivals such as the Internet, the automobile, the internal combustion engine, the microwave or the telephone, was the printing press. Similarly, A & E Networks selected the press’ inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, as the most influential person of the second millennium. This put him ahead of people such as Winston Churchill, Genghis Khan, Karl Marx, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Why such high praise for this machine? A device that could create copies of printed material during an era where virtually no one could read doesn’t seem as though it could be something that would change the world and all who live in it in a very short period of time.
By adapting an older method long established in places such as China and Korea, Gutenberg made a press using linseed oil and soot with moveable type that allowed the rate at which books and pamphlets were created to increase exponentially. This availability of material gave people an impetus to learn to read, and for the first time ever, widespread dissemination of knowledge began to occur. Previously books would only be written when copied by hand from previous material by monks, often taking years to develop (imagine how long it would take to copy a bible by hand!), and because of the length of time that it took, they were almost exclusively written in Latin. Within fifty years of the creation of Gutenberg’s press, twenty million volumes had been produced. This paved the way for the scientific and cultural movements of the Renaissance. The works of Shakespeare, Dante and Machiavelli could now be read across the known world. The ideas of Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Galileo could spread. The medical breakthroughs of Vesalius could help countless future generations live longer better lives. The printing press is what allowed ideas to spread.