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The Impact of the Printing Press

In order to better understand how technology today impacts society we may look at how printing press technology impacted literacy and society five hundred years ago.  Just as today another technology, the Internet, is democratizing knowledge and empowering the public by providing greater access to information.  Five hundred years ago when the printing press was invented there was a shift from laborious manuscript making to a print technology allowing large numbers of copies of written work to be created quickly, giving greater access to information and setting the stage for a slow but important transformation of societal literacy.

The creation of the printing press is a remediation of numerous previous print technology shifts.  Pertaining to writing technology, Bolter defines remediation when a, “newer medium takes place of an older one, borrowing and reorganizing the characteristics of writing in the older medium and reforming its cultural space.” (Bolter, 2001, p.23)    Prior to 1450, before Guttenberg created his version of a moveable type printing press, there were many examples of writing remediation where technology shifts were improving on and often eventually replacing the previous technology.   Clay tablets in Mesopotamia gave way to papyrus scrolls and then to the manuscript codex on parchment or paper. All of these print technology developments kept improving print, often resulting in the obsolescence of the prior technology.  Guttenberg combined the technologies of paper, oil based ink and the wine press to create a hybridized technology: the printing press, allowing mass production of printed books. (Jones, 2000)  This then eventually replaced the need for the hand-scribed manuscript codex. 

The printing press gave writing a consistent look and feel.  Prior to the invention of the printing press individual scribes would hand write the text leading to inconsistent writing and grammar.  However, the mechanization of the printing press achieved more regular spacing and hyphenation of the print. (Bolter, 2001)    Also the printing press led to consistent spelling, grammar and punctuation. (McLuhan, 1962)     This consistency of language rules enabled readers to more easily interpret the author’s writing and intentions.  Moreover, this consistency enhanced the overall reading experience.   As Rosenblatt writes, “The reader reacts to the words on the page one way rather than another because he operates according to the same set of rules that the author used to generate them.” (Rosenblatt, 1964, p.17)

Over the long term the printing press increased literacy by making print available to the general public.  Prior to the printing press books were very expensive because it was such a laborious task to hand-scribe a book.  This created a situation where only the elite were able to afford books and thus only a small percentage of the population knew how to read and write.  With the invention of the printing press, better quality of books were published and since they were able to be mass produced, the expense was reduced, making books more affordable to the general public.  It is estimated that by 1500 there were “fifteen to twenty million copies of 30,000 to 35,000 separate publications.”  (McLuhan, 1962, p.207)

The printing press had a positive impact on educational practices.  McLuhan stated that the “printed book was a new visual aid available to all students and it rendered the older education obsolete.  The book was literally a teaching machine where the manuscript was a crude teaching tool only.”  (McLuhan, 1962, p.145)  Referring to what a 16th century skeptical school administrator would have said regarding the transformation of education to the printed book McLuhan states, “Could a portable, private instrument like the new book take the place of the book one made by hand and memorized as one made it?  Could a book which could be read quickly and even silently take the place of a book read slowly? Could students trained by such printed books measure up to the skilled orators and disputants produced by manuscript means?" (McLuhan, 1962, p.145)

The printing press transformed learning.  It transformed the relationship between teacher and student and the way research was undertaken.  “Previous relations between masters and disciples were altered.  Students who took full advantage of technical texts which served as silent instructors…. Young minds provided with updated editions, especially of mathematical texts began to surpass not only their own elders but the wisdom of ancients as well." (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 689).   There was also a change in the way students researched and wrote.   “In the new print era, scholarly writing came to be viewed as authorship of original material, and scholarly reading came to mean the gathering, comprehending, and making use of information from a variety of sources, thus laying the basis for modern scholarship”. (Eisenstein, 1979)

Many writers credit the printing press as a catalyst for the profound societal and cultural transformations that began to occur in the 16th century.   The printing press provided people with a new communication medium thus allowing political and religious views to be disseminated widely.  According to McLuhan the printing press was responsible for the Industrial revolution, the rise of nationalism in Europe, and the use of perspectivity in art. (McLuhan, 1962) Eisenstein regards the printing press as an agent for the development of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of modern scientific thought. (Jensen, 2001)

The technology shift from the manuscript to the printing press increased literacy by reducing the expense of publishing books and making the process less time and labour intensive.  Printing press technology altered education by making available books that provide a new visual aid to learning.   Additionally the printing press served as a catalyst for many world movements and events by providing an effective way to disseminate political and religious views.  Today our society is in the midst of another technology shift that is transforming education. Five hundred years after its invention, the printing press can help us understand the growth and impact the Internet on literacy, knowledge and democracy.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1980). The printing press as an agent of change. Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Daniela. (1998). A critical examination of claims concerning the 'impact' of print. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/dle9701.html (accessed October 20, 2004).

Jensen, Carolyn. (2001) Review of the printing revolution in early modern Europe. LORE: Rhetoric, Writing, Culture. Sandiego State University.
http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/drwswebb/lore/1_3/jensen_eisen.htm (accessed October 20, 2004).

Jones, Bruce. (2000). Manuscripts, books, and maps: the printing press and a changing world. http://communication.ucsd.edu/bjones/Books/printech.html (accessed October 20, 2004).

McLuhan, M. (1962). The gutenberg galaxy: the making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press.

Moss, Mark. (2000). The printing press, literacy and change. http://www.callmagazine.com/news/markmoss.htm (accessed October 20, 2004).

Rosenblatt, Louise. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem. Southern Illinois University Press.

Warschauer, M. (1999). Electronic literacies: Language, culture, and power in online education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Winston, Brian. (1998). How are media born. http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/WINSTON.html (accessed October 20, 2004).

Zechowski, Sharon., McLuhan, Marshall: Canadian Media theorists. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/M/htmlM/mcluhanmars/mcluhanmars.htm (accessed October 20, 2004).

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