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The Communication Revolution

Like the first iPhone, Gutenberg’s Bible opened up avenues of development that entrepreneurs have been exploiting ever since.

· 10 min read
The Communication Revolution
Source: British Museum/Creative Commons 

The first printed work to emerge from Johann Gutenberg’s press in Mainz, Germany was the Ars Minor: a Latin grammar guide intended for schoolmasters and students. The success of the Ars Minor—and of a sideline in printed papal indulgences—convinced Gutenberg to risk embarking on the ambitious project of producing a Bible in 1455.

The Gutenberg Bible did not make its printer’s fortune; he was declared bankrupt later that year. But it was a formidable advertisement for the potential of printing. In March 1455, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, reported that he had seen the new Bible and was mightily impressed. He found that all available copies had already been sold. The book was not cheap, but was considerably less expensive than a handwritten manuscript.

Gutenberg was not the first printer. The Chinese had been printing books since at least the ninth century AD. The most common method was to carve a woodblock to reproduce an entire page. After the block had been inked, a piece of paper was laid over the top and rubbed to ensure the design was uniformly applied. Later, in China and Korea, printers began to use moveable type made of wood, ceramic, and even metal.

Paper was another Chinese invention, in use there since at least the second century AD. It reached Europe via Muslim intermediaries, arriving in Italy by 1276 AD. Originally manufactured from cloth rags, paper was cheaper to produce than parchment, which was made from animal skins. This helped to reduce the cost of books during the Middle Ages. Parchment was soon reserved for deluxe presentation volumes. (Gutenberg himself used it for some of his Bibles.)

Although he did not invent any of the individual elements of printing, Gutenberg, a trained goldsmith and metallurgist, was able to combine existing technologies into a new product and to improve the process in doing so. He cast movable metal type of uniform height to ensure even contact with the paper. His printing press was based on a winepress, a machine that had been around for centuries. Pressing the ink into the paper rather than rubbing it in allowed him to print on both sides of each sheet. Gutenberg also formulated his own recipe for an ink made from oil and soot, since the dyes used in woodblock printing would have just slid off metal type.

The extent of print culture in the early modern West was unique in the world at that time. While China produced large print runs, these represented relatively few titles. Over the course of the sixteenth century, at least 3,500 editions were published in Europe each year, compared to less than 50 per year in Ming-Dynasty China. In the Ottoman Empire, as Anton Howes has noted, printing did not enjoy official governmental approval and may have been banned outright from 1483. In contrast to these centralized, autocratic realms, Europe benefited from its political fragmentation. Even if one ruler outlawed the press, he couldn’t stop his neighbours from encouraging it. The Europeans also had the advantage of a lingua franca: Latin was the language of the intelligentsia across the whole of Western Christendom. This gave publishers access to a larger market than if they had had to rely on sales in their local languages alone.

The widespread knowledge of Latin didn’t guarantee enough potential book buyers to justify Gutenberg’s investment in his press, which cost him the enormous sum of 1,600 guilders. However, the existing demand for manuscripts gave him grounds for optimism. Economic historian Eltjo Buringh has modelled the rate of production of manuscripts in Western Europe from the sixth century onwards. Buringh’s estimates are based on the number of surviving manuscripts in libraries and private collections (just over one million, all told) and the assumption that around 25 percent of all manuscripts have been lost or destroyed each century. Buringh writes that, in the years following the fall of Rome in 476 AD, barely 100 manuscripts were being copied across the whole continent each year. The number increased steadily beginning in 700 AD, not least because of the work of Irish monks, who reintroduced classical learning into Europe. Over the next few centuries, the rise in manuscript production correlates quite well with the spread of monasteries. From around 1300 AD, the demand for manuscripts was driven by expanding towns and the new universities. By the time Gutenberg released his Bible, European scribes were copying an estimated 50,000 manuscripts a year. This number continued to increase for another couple of decades before it fell precipitously due to the rise of printing. Hand-copied books became luxuries intended to signify status as much as learning.

The number of books produced in the first couple of generations after the introduction of the printing presses was vastly greater than before. Bibliophiles call books printed before 1501 ‘incunables,’ from the Latin word for cradle. These earliest printed books have been extensively catalogued: about half a million remain. Based on the number of copies of each edition still in existence and assuming original print runs of 500 copies per edition, historian Uwe Neddermeyer has calculated that at least 95% of all incunables have been lost. Historians Jonathan Green, Frank McIntyre, and Paul Needham have noted that many editions survive in the form of a single exemplar, which implies that many more may have completely disappeared. Adding these phantom editions to estimates based on books we know about suggests that the total number of fifteenth-century printed books was more than 20 million. Clearly, by medieval standards, the growth of the printing industry was explosive. In 1500, there were 1,000 print shops in Europe, churning out a million books per annum. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has noted, more books were produced during the first 50 years of printing than handwritten manuscripts during the entire Middle Ages. The demand for reading matter was greater than anyone could have imagined.

The 180 first edition copies of the Gutenberg Bible represented about 0.3 percent of Europe’s total book production in 1455. But the proportion of printed to handwritten material grew rapidly as early printers continued to innovate. The major expense involved was casting moveable metal type. Gutenberg probably used a soft medium, perhaps sand, as a mould but, before long, type was cast from metal moulds in type foundries. These produced identical copies of each letter, which could be sold to print shops. The word ‘font’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘foundry,’ reflecting its origin in metal type. More efficient workflow methods also reduced the time it took to manufacture a book. In the 1470s, three men working for three months could produce 300 copies. It would have taken a scribe three lifetimes to complete the same number. As a result, book prices had dropped by over two thirds by the end of the century. They were even cheaper second-hand.

Early printed books also got progressively more reader-friendly. Many incunables—including Gutenberg’s Bible—employed the same typographic conventions as manuscripts, such as abbreviations and contractions designed to save scribes time. But as the industry developed, printers started to expand these abbreviations, making for a more pleasant reading experience. This also meant that they required a smaller range of type because they didn’t need so many special ligatures and symbols. We take things like page numbers and indexes for granted, but these were invented by publishers. In the 1550s, the Parisian printer Robert Estienne developed the system of dividing the Bible into verses that we still use today. Attractive Italic and Roman fonts gradually replaced the old Blackletter, which was based on scribal book hands. Thanks to these features, printed books grew more desirable than manuscripts, as well as cheaper.

There is a flip side to a dynamic market in an improving product: older items quickly go out of date. Books are no exception. In the sixteenth century, one inevitable result of the number of new books was the unprecedented scale of the destruction of ancient tomes. These once treasured items were now simply obsolete. Although illuminated manuscripts were preserved for their beautiful illustrations (printed books couldn’t match these), workaday examples didn’t seem worth hanging onto.

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The rise of humanism exacerbated the situation. This new movement valued the literature of the classical world over that of medieval authors, who were deemed to be tainted with obscurantism and superstition. In 1535, for example, Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, launched a purge of medieval philosophy from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He wanted to replace scholastic writers like John Duns Scotus with a new humanist syllabus. Cromwell’s agents in Oxford reported that the professors were eager to get with the times. They found one college quad filled with old manuscript leaves that were  being gathered up like so much waste paper. Duns Scotus, they wrote to Cromwell, was “made a common servant to every man fast nailed up upon the posts in all common houses of easement.” In other words, pages from his paper books were being used as toilet paper. The fate of books made of precious parchment was little better. They were cut up and used as bindings for new books.

Incunables had it even worse. As the price of printed volumes came down and readability improved, people didn’t hesitate to dispose of fifteenth-century books as they acquired newer ones. Eventually, incunables were scarce enough that collectors became interested. At that point, probably in the late seventeenth century, people stopped binning their oldest books and started to hang onto them just because they were rare. Thus, incunables that survived the window of obsolescence began to appreciate in value. Gutenberg’s Bible was a major beneficiary of this trend. Today, 48 substantially complete copies of the 180 originally printed still survive, making it one of the most common fifteenth-century books. Don’t expect to pick one up for a song, though. A single page tends to fetch at least $50,000 at auction.

Historians often have difficulty imagining why anyone would throw away a medieval manuscript or incunable. But changes in fashion, more up-to-date editions and improvements to printing technology account for almost all the losses. Admittedly, some books may have been lost to censorship, which was widespread in the early modern period. The Papacy had its Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books, charged with expunging or banning heretical works. But while the Congregation’s judgements might have been respected by loyal Catholics, many people flouted their rulings. Even while he was under house arrest for saying that the earth orbited the sun, Galileo arranged for his final book, The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences (1638) to be published in the Protestant Netherlands. Although the authorities did sometimes burn books they considered deviant, the vast majority of the millions of lost manuscripts and incunables died of neglect.

From our vantage point, the destruction of so many books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries looks like a tragedy. But it reflects well on the health of the book trade. Rapid turnover is a sign of a liquid market where innovation is rewarded. People who bought books wanted editions that were conveniently sized, easy to read, and not too expensive. If this meant that aged and tattered volumes had to make way, so be it. Waste is an inevitable consequence of progress.

In modern business parlance, Gutenberg’s Bible was a minimum viable product. It lacked some of the features that became common in later books, but was already cheaper and better than a manuscript. In that respect, it was rather like the first iPhone, unveiled by Steve Jobs on 9 January 2007. Like printing, the iPhone combined existing technology with new ideas to create a radical new tool for communication. And just as with printed books, the cost of manufacturing phones has fallen fast. While a premium device costs well over $1,000 new, it’s possible to purchase a functional smartphone for far less. There is also a thriving market in used handsets. Second-hand phones put technology that was cutting-edge a few years ago into the hands of the masses. At the same time, the user-experience has improved dramatically with better cameras, faster processors, more capacious memory and a vast choice of apps. The first iPhone didn’t have an app store at all.

In 2007, a billion handsets were sold. But like manuscripts in the 1450s, the first cell phones were about to be overtaken by a step-change in technology. Apple shipped just 1.4 million first-generation iPhones that year, barely 0.1% of the market. The biggest player, accounting for almost 40% of sales, was Nokia. But by 2013, Nokia was in free fall. The phones it made, now disparagingly called “bricks,” were the cell phone equivalent of manuscripts. Smartphones overtook dumb phones and now sell around 1.5 billion units a year. Apple is still a major player, but cheaper Android-based phones, introduced in October 2008, dominate internationally.

It took a while for first manuscripts and then incunables to fall into obsolescence. Today, technology is moving so quickly that phones become outdated within a decade. We are better at recycling than they were in the sixteenth century, but over a billion devices are still thrown away each year, all too often ending up in landfill. And, as with incunables, the increased rarity of old phones is making them worth collecting. In July 2023, a mint example of the first-generation iPhone sold at auction for $190,000.

As an innovator, Gutenberg needed access to capital, the skills to harness current technology and a sufficiently large market. But that wasn’t enough. There also had to be competition, which led to better products at lower prices, and little effective government interference. A thriving second-hand trade ensured that books were available to those who couldn’t afford new ones, and increasing literacy meant the market for books grew ever larger. Like the first iPhone, Gutenberg’s Bible opened up avenues of development that entrepreneurs have been exploiting ever since. The success of printing was surely one of the factors that led to the rise of the West and a great example of the kind of innovation we still need today.

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