Early Printing Press
Early Printing Press

Episode 17 – The Invention of the Printing Press versus the Industrial Revolution

Today, we introduce you to two of the most earth-shattering events in human history. On the one side, we have the invention of the Printing Press, an invention which would allow for the sharing of information to the masses. On the other hand, we have the Industrial Revolution which would change the fabric of human existence.  

First up is the printing press that would come about from the brain of one Johannes Guttenberg in 1439. Until then, the ability to mass produce printed word and images was painfully slow. Woodblock printing was around from about the 8th century, during the Tang dynasty in China with movable metal type actually appearing in Korea in the 13th century. Of course, these methods were faster than copying books by hand, which is how most bibles at the time were created. 

We all know that the advent of the printing press was to allow for the distribution of information to a more significant number of people, but the question begs, what situation precipitated the need for the printing press?

The first reason may surprise you; it was the aftermath of the Black Death of 1346 through 1353. I would assume you are wondering what this pandemic has to do with the ascension of the printing press but hear me out. It is estimated that the plague in Europe during the mid-14th century killed between 30-60% of the population, or between 75-100 million in Europe and another 100 million in Asia. With so many deaths, the remaining people inherited their properties causing a substantial increase in net worth of many of the 350 million left.  

On top of all that, many of the monks who were able to copy books died in the plague. The reason for the unusually high mortality rate among the men of the cloth was the crowded conditions of the monasteries. 

With an increase of economic worth comes a socio-cultural shift, and in particular, religion. There was a great schism in Western Christianity between 1378-1416 led by men such as John Wycliffe at Oxford University and Jan Hus at the Charles University in Prague. Questioning authority, especially the Catholic Church began to spread. The problem was, handwritten manuscripts and flyers were tedious and most of the scribes of the day were employed by the church.

Necessity is the mother of invention as they say and the obligation to create a faster means of sharing information was a significant need. There was a demand for books from the post-Black Death era, and Johannes Gutenberg saw his opening.

A goldsmith by trade, Gutenberg new how to shape metal which allowed him to create his type pieces in easy to use lead-based alloys. The Latin Alphabet was also easier to use than logographic systems like Chinese characters and Japanese Kanji. All you needed was 26 characters, not hundreds to create any word. 

There was the development of another technology that helped make the printing press possible and that was the ability to mass produce paper instead of parchment. By the 14th century, numerous paper making centers were popping up in Italy and Germany. The cost of making paper also dropped.

The last technological hump was the inks used. Paper was not a good fit with the standard water-based inks as they bled too much. What Gutenberg did was to create oil-based ink which worked well with the metal typesetting he invented. 

The Printing Revolution as it is called exploded throughout Europe in just a few years. Staring in Gutenberg’s shop in Mainz, Germany in 1439, within 40 years there were 110 places in the continent. In the sixty years after the first page was run, close to 20 million copies were produced.

The effect on European life was enormous. Martin Luther’s tracts from his Ninety-Five Thesis of 1517 were reproduced over 300,000 times. The Protestant Reformation would never have gotten as far as it did without the printing press. 

Theological questions could be shared with the masses, science could be passed on to be contemplated upon, newspapers began to pop up conveying recent news. 

What many historians point out as one of the greatest outcomes of the invention of the printing press is the democratization of knowledge. No longer did you have to belong to the nobility to access education, no longer did you have to be wealthy, but more importantly, the Church and the State would no longer be able to control what you could read or learn about, although they most certainly tried.

With the increased access to knowledge, you begin to see the rise of local languages and the decline of Latin giving even more people the ability to learn. The economies of the countries who embraced the printing press were also significantly improved. You could now share manuals on how to build bridges, buildings, or how to do double-entry bookkeeping. The spreading of knowledge would not have another explosion like the invention of the printing press until the creating of the Internet in the 20th century.

Of course, the Gutenberg press was only the start of the printing revolution. Newer, faster printers came online allowing for more print to come out of each shop at lower costs. In 1814, The Times of London produced 1,110 impression2 per hour. By 1920, with the Platen Press, they could triple the output. 

The invention by Johannes Gutenberg changed the world and still has a major impact on us. 

Now to the Put It into Perspective segment of the podcast. In 1439, Pope Pius III was born, The Battle of Grotnik was fought where Wladyslav III crushed the Hussites in Poland and the town of Plymouth, England was the first town incorporated by the British Parliament.

Next up, is another earth-shattering event that changed the world forever, the Industrial Revolution. 

Power Loom
Power Loom

Prior to 1760, most manufacturing was done in homes or small shops using simple tools or in rare instances machines. Life was simple but challenging, and most people were poor. The average person lived in a small village or town, and their lives were focused on farming. A fundamental change in the everyday lives of everyone was about to change, and the transformation began in Great Britain.

There are many reasons why England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. First, it was politically stable, and it was an island where wars were not being fought all the time like on the continent. It was also a colonial power which gave it access to raw materials that others could not gather. Britain also had enormous deposits of coal and iron ore which is crucial to industrialization.

The first industry to be transformed was in textiles. Previously, merchants would drop off raw materials to the small shops and homes and pick up the finished goods. This was an inefficient way to provide products and limited supply as well as being relatively expensive. With the invention of the spinning jenny by James Hargreaves in 1764 an individual could produce multiple spools of thread in the same time they could create one. The power loom was developed in the 1780’s whereby vast quantities of cloth could be made.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen created the first practical steam engine. In the 1770’s James Watt significantly improved it which made steam available to power machinery, trains, and ships to transport goods around the world. To understand the ramifications, we look at the amount of raw cotton imported into Britain. In 1750, 2.5 million pounds of raw cotton entered the ports, 37 years later, it was 22 million pounds, and by 1850 it was 588 million pounds.

With all of this production came an increase in the average wage of a worker. An English worker in Lancashire made six times the amount of salary than the cottage industry worker in India did. With more money comes an increased buying power. 

Other industries that saw explosions in efficiency and manufacturing capabilities included iron making and the creation of machine tools. 

With these improvements also comes some adverse side effects. The conditions that the workers who labored in the newer, bigger shops and factories were at times, horrific and very dangerous. It led to some riots in England as the people who used to work in their cottages rebelled against the changes. Those who opposed the revolution were often times called Luddites. Here is a quote I found in my research. “The word “Luddite” refers to a person who is opposed to technological change. The term is derived from a group of early 19th century English workers who attacked factories and destroyed machinery as a means of protest. They were supposedly led by a man named Ned Ludd, though he may have been an apocryphal figure.”

Transportation was transformed from horse-drawn wagons and boats transporting goods to steam locomotives and steam-powered ships moving greater piles of product faster and further than ever before. Not only that, but people could travel further and further away from their home bases. By 1850, Great Britain had over 6,000 miles of railroads. In Russia, a country vastly more massive than its counterpart had about 570 miles. This gap continued for decades.

There is so much more that happened due to the Industrial Revolution including improvements in chemicals, cement, gas lights, glass making, agriculture, mining, transportation, roads, and railways. But the real change was in the standard of living. 

According to economist Robert E. Lucas Jr., “for the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth… Nothing remotely like this economic behavior is mentioned by the classical economists, even as a theoretical possibility.” It didn’t happen overnight, but net wages did rise substantially over the years, and the life expectancy of children showed dramatic increases. In London for instance, the number of children who died before the age of five went from a staggering 74.5% in the years between 1730-1749 to 31.8% in the years between 1810-1829.

I could go on and on for days about all of the changes in society caused by the Industrial Revolution, but this is not the time and place for that. Maybe someone will do a podcast solely on the topic, which is something I certainly would listen to. 

We’ve talked a lot about the changes in Great Britain due to the improved industrialization, but other countries followed suit quickly after that. Surprisingly, Belgium was the second country to benefit from the change. France was next followed by Germany which became a powerhouse in the chemical industry along with countries like Sweden, Japan, and of course the United States. 

This information begs the question, ‘Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Europe and not places like China, India and the Middle East which all were far more advanced in the year 1500 than their counterpart?’ Some historians believe that the advent of the printing press was one of the impetuses behind Europe’s dominance. It allowed manuals to be constructed to educate people about the new technologies. Others dismiss this as they cite historical data showing the other countries having printing presses as well. The one theory that seems to answer the question best is that Europe had so many different countries and languages that there was a competitive edge, trying to outdo your neighbor that gave the Europeans the will to innovate. 

According to David Landes in his work “The Unbound Prometheus,” there were six reasons (1) The period of peace and stability which followed the unification of England and Scotland; (2) no trade barriers between England and Scotland; (3) the rule of law (enforcing property rights and respecting the sanctity of contracts); (4) a straightforward legal system that allowed the formation of joint-stock companies (corporations); (5) absence of tolls, which had largely disappeared from Britain by the 15th century, but were an extreme burden on goods elsewhere in the world, and (6) a free market (capitalism).

Another theory is that Great Britain had what is called, the Protestant Work Ethic which espoused hard work, discipline, and frugality. This is hotly debated but is a palatable theory based on the information we have.

So now on to the scoring.

First off, we have 15 points to give out based on the number of people involved in the event. While the printing press invention was started by one man and spread to a few thousand pretty quickly, the Industrial Revolution had hundreds of inventions involving millions of people. 15 points go to it with 5 going to the Guttenberg’s press.

Twenty points need to be doled out based on how the event affected the world at the time. One cannot diminish the immediate impact of the printing press on Europe while the Industrial Revolution took some time before it spread from Great Britain to the rest of the world. For these reasons, I’m giving the printing press 20 with 12 going to the revolution.

Next up is the 25 points for the long-term impact on the world. The invention of the printing press changed our world, mostly for the better. It made the spread of knowledge available to everyone. You no longer needed to be wealthy or connected to learn things, you just needed to know how to read. The Industrial Revolution though changed everything. People were lifted up from day to day existence worrying about how to feed you and your family to a world where you can travel almost anywhere and enjoy a far better lifestyle than our ancestors. For these reasons, I give the Industrial Revolution 25 points and the invention of the printing press 20. 

Now for the big points, 40 for the immediate effect on the country or countries involved. While the press did have an almost immediate impact, the Industrial Revolution from its beginning in 1760 to its end between 1820 to 1840, drastically changed nearly everything. Industrial Revolution 40, printing press 35.

Our totals in today’s Historical Event battle is the Invention of the Printing Press 80, the Industrial Revolution 92. The winner will face off against World War I.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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