1 Gutenberg Prints the Bible 1455 OF ALL THE millennium's technological revolutions, the most far-reaching started just before the era's midpoint. Throughout history, the ability to read and write had been confined mostly to tiny elites of nobles, priests and scribes. But in the 15th century a literate middle class arose in Europe. Its hunger for knowledge led inventors to seek a way to mass-produce the written word. And when German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg succeeded--creating his masterpiece, a run of 200 gorgeously typeset Bibles, in 1455--he unleashed an information epidemic that rages to this day.
To appreciate Gutenberg's achievement, it is necessary to understand what he did not do. He didn't invent printing: The craft emerged in 8th century China, using multiple characters carved on a single woodblock. He didn't invent movable type (letters rearranged for each new page): Chinese printer Pi Sheng did, around 1040. Gutenberg didn't even invent movable metal type: The Koreans did, in the 14th century. But wood-block printing of text reached Europe only in the early 1400s, and it appears that no one on the continent knew of Asia's more advanced techniques. Movable type had not, in fact, caught on widely in China or Korea, where writing involved 10,000 characters. In Europe, however, such technology seemed full of promise. What Gutenberg devised was the first Western movable-type system that worked--so well that it remained virtually unchanged for 350 years.
Gutenberg designed a new kind of press, based on those used to squeeze olives. He came up with an alloy of lead, tin and antimony, and a precisely calibrated type-mold to pour it into. He concocted a smudge-resistant ink of lampblack, turpentine and linseed oil. Each page of his Bible probably took a worker a day to set, but once the type was in place, the rest was relatively easy.
Gutenberg's methods spread with stunning rapidity. By 1500, an estimated half a million printed books were in circulation: religious works, Greek and Roman classics, scientific texts, Columbus's report from the New World. An acceleration of the Renaissance was only the first by-product of the Gutenberg press. Without it, the Protestant movement might have been stillborn, as well as the industrial and political revolutions of the succeeding centuries. Gutenberg, however, got none of the glory. His brainchild bankrupted him; in 1455 a creditor took over his business. Little more is known of the inventor--in part because he never put his own name into print.