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The scientific enlightenment was a time of radical change in thought. Emerging from the Dark Ages was the Renaissance, a rebirth of art, culture, and science. Connecting these three aspects was the invention of the printing press in 1440. The printing press was able to produce large sums of written and identical work, something that before 1440 was impossible. The printing press was the invention of the century, and radically changed how ideas and thoughts were shared. Books, pamphlets, and documents of all types could be printed and distributed all throughout Europe; leading to a mass spread of knowledge and communication – ultimately pushing the scientific enlightenment. This digital exhibition article will be exploring the roles of the early printing press, and answering how its invention was crucial to the scientific enlightenment.

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Before the printing press, any published works were done painstakingly by hand by monks; these works are now known as illuminated manuscripts (see figure 1). These books were expensive and meant only for nobles and the Church. The first printing press and type-mould in Europe were invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 C.E, however it was quickly adapted and improved on by others. Gutenberg’s press could print one page at a time as Stephen Fry explains in his BBC documentary, Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press, “forensic analysis of Gutenberg’s original bible reveals that he only printed one page at a time. In other words, he’s was a one pull press”<1>. The printing press in modern times seems to be simple enough, however, James C. Moran, author of The Development of the Printing Press, describes what challenges Gutenberg faced in order to have arrived at his final design, “the pressure exerted by a heavy board by a continuous screwing motion would have injured the type, and so the need for more resilience produced the idea of freeing the platen from the screw and framework…the screw itself was refined into a spindle, tapering into a rounded point…and turned independently…thus avoiding twisting the platen and slurring the impression”<2>. But by 1499, fifty years later, it was common for presses to print two pages at once, as seen here on Danse Merkaba, one of the earliest known images of a printing press (see figure 2). While improvements were made to Gutenberg’s original press, the main ideas behind his press are still present in modern printing presses – that is to have even pressure and weight press down on a moving platform.

The invention of the printing press did not immediately give the general public access to books as they were still seen as luxury items only meant for the literate – who during the fifteenth century were only important members of the church and some nobles. However, with production being much faster than in the past, books became more accessible and as their accessibility grew so did literacy in the public. This can be seen as a cycle; the more books were produced, the more people read, and the more people read, the more books needed to be produced. The Gutenberg Bible (see figure 4) was the first book printed in an effort to show that the printing press was not a threat to the church, but a tool to unify the church under one copy of the bible.<3> Almost a century later however, the printing press played a major role in the division of the church with Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses published in 1517. By the eighteenth century, many published works were seen as dangerous; Spain, under the rule of King Philip, banned a number of books and documents that were thought to be dangerous and against what the Church taught. This ban on books is proof of how far reaching and influential published works could be. In The Chemical Philosophy and the Scientific Revolution, author Allen G. Debus talks about medical books and documents that were banned because they went against the Galenic teachings, “the Spanish Inquisition were charged with licensing of books, and those who published or circulated unlicensed books were subject to death.”<4> As a consequence, Spain did not have a major voice in the scientific enlightenment until laws were relaxed in the 1660’s.

The printing press changed how Europeans communicated. It advanced how visual images were used as well as how words were. Elizabeth L. Eisentein wrote in her article, In the Wake of the Printing Press, that the printing press “made it possible to bypass the confusion engendered by linguistic multiformity, by translation problems, and by diverse names for constellations, landmasses, flora, or fauna.”<5> The printing press was not only responsible for the mass creation and spread of knowledge, but also helped unify already known specimens. For example, if a person was describing a plant to a colleague, sending a print of what the plant looked like, or referencing a book both parties had with a print and description of said plant, would be more successful than just a written description. These books and prints helped when there were language barriers or even just different names for the same specimen in different regions. In Refer to Folio and Number: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus, readers can see that reference books were indeed how scientist communicated before a universal naming scheme was invented, “Linnaeus instructed Amman in shorthand to look up Buxbaum’s works in his library, search for a plant ceratocarpus, and then send a specimen corresponding to Buxbaum’s description and depiction”.<6> Visual aids became more and more necessary in the scientific field. Paintings of nature could be etched into copper plates and printed (see figure 5). These etchings were used as diagrams that lead other scientists in discovery, experiments, and dissections that otherwise could not have been done.

Through the mass production of published material, the printing press allowed for growth in knowledge and communication in Europe. Elizabeth L. Eisentein wrote, “that print not only encouraged the spread of literacy among people who had no access to manuscripts but also affected communications among the literate professional elites.”<7> The scientific enlightenment relied heavily on the printing press and its ability to reach masses and clarify ideas. The printing press allowed scientists to publish their works and theories which in turn inspired other scientists in their own work. The printing press was the invention of the century and was crucial to the success of the scientific enlightenment.

<1> Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. Directed by Patrick McGrady. Presented by Stephen Fry. British Broadcasting Corporation. 2009. 60 minutes. (7:35)

<2> Moran, James C. “The Development of the Printing Press.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 119, no. 5177 (1971): 282.

<3> Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. British Broadcasting Corporation. 2009. 60 minutes. (16:00)

<4> Allen G. Debus, “The Chemical Philosophy and the Scientific Revolution”, in The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings, ed. Marcus Hellyer (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 173.

<5> Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. “In the Wake of the Printing Press.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 35, no. 3 (1978): 183-97. Pg 184.

<6> Dániel Margócsy. “Refer to Folio and Number: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus”, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 1, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 64.

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<7> Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. “In the Wake of the Printing Press.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 35, no. 3 (1978): 183-97. Pg 184.