Unknown to the Ancients: The New Technology
New technology promises new riches to its pioneers. The development and commercial exploitation of television and computer technology in the twentieth century made fortunes for many, just as the railroad and oil industries created a new wealthy social class in nineteenth-century America. In the fifteenth century, a new invention promised to revolutionize communications and generate untold riches for those fortunate enough to be in it from the beginning.
In 1620, the influential English philosopher Francis Bacon observed how three inventions had reshaped the world as he knew it.
It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions, and these are nowhere to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.
Bacon here identified the three inventions that changed the face of the known world. Gunpowder altered the course of warfare irreversibly. The magnet, when used to construct a mariner's compass, allowed navigation to proceed even when the sun and stars could not be seen. These two inventions lay behind England's rise to greatness under Queen Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century, as Bacon well knew.
Most important of all for the story that we are about to tell, the invention of printing made it possible for ideas to sweep across Europe and the oceans of the world, ignoring the barriers erected by anxious monarchs and bishops to safeguard the familiar and comfortable old ways. To understand the importance of this invention, we need to consider the social revolution that had engulfed Europe during the later Middle Ages. A new middle class emerged, convinced of the possibility of changing the world.
The Social Revolution: The New Middle Class
The Middle Ages was witness to a massive social upheaval across much of Western Europe. The feudal system gradually crumbled, with wealth and power beginning to shift to a new merchant class. Under the feudal system, power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of families. Especially during the fifteenth century, the influence of the traditional families began eroding. Control of some of the great cities of Europe slipped away from the aristocracy, and shifted to the growing number of merchants. These had made their fortunes through trading and dealing, and had little time for the old-fashioned attitudes of the traditional families. Throughout Europe, cities began to be governed by city councils dominated by the new merchant class. Traditional social structures were undermined by greater social mobility, increased wealth and spending power within the middle classes, and a surge in literacy and levels of educational achievement within the population as a whole.
This development was of immense significance in the shaping of a new Europe. The control of sections of society was slowly but surely shifting from the old patrician families to the entrepreneurs. The emerging breed of venture capitalists was looking for business opportunities. The great trade fairs of late medieval Europe--held at international crossroads, such as Geneva--became important catalysts for economic growth, encouraging trade across Europe. Investment opportunities were eagerly sought. Our story concerns one such opportunity--the invention of printing. The financial backing of the new technology of printing was quickly identified as one of the surest ways to make money. Investment in printing technology became increasingly attractive on account of a major social change--the rise in literacy. People began to read; someone had to produce the books they came to demand.
In the early Middle Ages, literacy was rare, and often limited to the clergy. It was common for the courts of Europe to employ clergy to handle their correspondence and archives. This was not because the clergy might bring some special spiritual quality or blessing to these matters, but simply because the clergy were just about the only people at the time who could read and write. But the new culture of the Italian Renaissance, which swept through much of Western Europe in the fourteenth century, saw literacy as being a social accomplishment, rather than just a useful administrative tool. Being able to read was now seen as the key to personal fulfillment; to own books was a statement of social status, sending out powerful signals concerning both the financial and intellectual standing of the household.
The Renaissance was a complex and highly dynamic movement, which had its origins in fourteenth-century Italy. At one level, it can be seen as a movement working for the renewal of culture, which based itself on the classical language, literature, and arts of Ancient Rome. Ancient Rome was seen as a fountainhead, a spring of fresh and flowing water, that could refresh and renew European culture, and liberate it from the barren and arid ideas of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance set out to promote written and spoken eloquence, and placed considerable emphasis on cultivating both reading and writing. To be literate was now more than a technical accomplishment, useful for keeping records and correspondence up to date. It was a sophisticated cultural achievement that opened the way to self-improvement and personal fulfillment--not to mention the hope of social advancement. The possession of books was now seen as a social virtue, raising the status of their owner within an increasingly literate culture.
The demand for books soared. The rise in literacy created a virtually insatiable appetite for reading material. Yet this new demand simply could not be met by existing book production techniques. These were painfully slow, and the price of books correspondingly high. Text and illustrations had to be painstakingly copied out by hand by specially trained scribes. Demand far outstripped the supply. The surge of interest in books caused many to wonder whether it was possible to develop a new way of producing them that would cut out the hugely expensive copying process. There was money waiting to be made for someone who could cut production costs, just as there was venture capital waiting to be invested in any new technology that could open the way to mass book production.
So how could books be produced cheaply? A short-term answer was found in the early part of the fifteenth century. Text and illustrations were engraved on wooden blocks, using a knife and gouge. A water-based brown ink, made from the bark of trees, was then applied to the block using an inking cushion. The block was then used to print copies of the image on single sheets of paper, which were bound together to produce a book. But it was only an interim solution. The blocks were costly to produce, and once cut to order, could not be used for any other purpose. It was ideal for short books--but for long works, such as the Bible, it was unrealistically cumbersome. A better solution had to be found. The man who found it was Johannes Gutenberg.
Johannes Gutenberg and the Origins of Printing
As we have seen, the burgeoning demand for reading material throughout Western Europe created a huge market for books. Entrepreneurs began to realize the potentially lucrative business opportunity this offered. Suppose it were possible to invent a new way of producing books quickly and cheaply. If the process could be kept secret in its early stages, it could make its inventor and his backers immensely rich. This was the new philosopher's stone, which could turn all to gold. By 1450, five individuals were desperately seeking the answer, each with their own financial backers. Jean Brito of Bruges, Panfilo Casteli of Feltre, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Laurens Koster of Haarlem, and Prokop Waldvogel of Avignon were urgently pursuing this new holy grail, which promised to make them rich beyond their dreams.
The solution was eventually found by Johannes Gutenberg, who made the breakthrough that finally established printing as the communication technology of the future. Similar ideas may have been under development around the same time in Prague and Haarlem. But in business, the key question is not about who else is in the race, it's about who gets there first. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to make the new technology work, ensuring his place in any history of the human race.
Gutenberg was born to the wealthy Gensfleisch family in the city of Mainz. Following a long-standing custom, he took his mother's name. He trained in metalworking, and became a member of Mainz' Guild of Goldsmiths. In 1430, he moved to Strasbourg, where he established a business making high-quality metal mirrors. These were much sought after by pilgrims to local cathedrals, who believed that they could reflect the healing power of sacred relics on their owners. It was pure superstition, of course--but even superstition could be exploited for profit.
Gutenberg's experience in working metals to create mirrors would come in useful as he labored, in secret, to develop a new way of transferring ink to paper through the first printing press. Gutenberg's first experiments in new approaches to printing were carried out clandestinely in Strasbourg. They were hugely expensive, and Gutenberg had to borrow extensively to finance them. Gutenberg regarded the costs as the inevitable result of any major business venture, and had every expectation of recouping all his costs once the technology was perfected. Secrecy was essential if he was to stay ahead of the opposition.
What Gutenberg developed was a printing system. It is important to appreciate that the printing press being developed by Gutenberg brought together a number of existing technologies, as well as one major innovation--movable metal type. The invention of movable metal type on its own would not have been enough to enable this breakthrough. Gutenberg's genius lay in creating a system that incorporated both new and old ideas, allowing a task to be performed with unprecedented efficiency.
Gutenberg's experimental printing process involved the kind of wooden screw press traditionally used to crush grapes for wine or olives for oil, or to compress bales of cloth. A similar press was already used in paper production, to squeeze water out of newly made paper. Gutenberg appears to have realized that the process that removed water from paper might also be used to print ink onto that same medium.
An initial difficulty that Gutenberg encountered was that the screw used to press the platen--that is, the flat plate that spreads the pressure from the screw across a wide area of paper--caused ink smudges. Turning the screw to increase the pressure on the paper also caused the platen to rotate slightly, and thus blurred the printed impression. Gutenberg got around this difficulty by inserting a vertical wooden box between the screw and platen. This box--which came to be known as a "hose"--allowed the smudge-free printing so characteristic of Gutenberg's early productions.
But what kind of ink should be used? One of Gutenberg's key contributions to the development of printing was the invention of a new type of ink made from lampblack--the soot deposited by candle flames on cold surfaces--and varnish, which was suitable for this new approach to printing. The older printing technology used a water-soluble brown ink, which faded over time; the new process used a dark black ink, which was permanent. A range of water-soluble inks were available to medieval scribes. The liquid produced by cuttlefish and squid was employed to produce a sepia-colored ink, while a brown ink could be made by extracting the tannic acids found in gall nuts or tree bark. Egg white and gum acted as a media support for these inks.
Oil-based ink had been developed earlier in the Middle Ages. The new inks, based on "lampblack," had not been used extensively. The main reason for this was that most medieval books took the form of manuscripts made of vellum or parchment (calf- or lambskin), which did not readily absorb the oil. As a result, the ink did not always dry completely, and smudged easily.
Gutenberg developed printing techniques that allowed paper to come into its own as a medium for the new technology. The origins of rag- and fiber-based papers can be traced back to second-century China. The Arab invasions of western China in the eighth century led to the Arabs acquiring this new technology; in turn, they passed it on to Europe. The first European paper mill was established in eastern Spain in 1074. The technology spread slowly across Europe. The first German paper mill was founded at Nuremberg in 1390. The reason for this slow advance is not difficult to establish. Paper was widely regarded as inferior to vellum. It cost less to produce than vellum, but it did not last as long. In addition, it had a tendency to absorb the water-based inks used in manuscript book production. Vellum was widely regarded as being superior on all counts.
Yet paper proved to be eminently suitable for the new process of mechanical printing, using metal type and oil-based inks. Although Gutenberg produced a small number of printed Bibles using vellum (or parchment; the two terms are more or less interchangeable), his technology effectively marked the end of vellum as a publishing medium. An additional factor here was that vellum did not absorb any kind of ink, whether water or oil-based. As a result, the pigments were deposited on the surface of the material, rather than absorbed within it. The pigments could thus easily be rubbed off the surface of vellum through constant use. The imprint on paper, in contrast, remained permanent.
Gutenberg's real breakthrough was the invention of movable type--that is, letters that could be reused after printing one book. Block-print technology--which had been known in Europe since the return of Marco Polo from Asia at the end of the thirteenth century--suffered a serious limitation. Each block had to be created specially for each page of a book; once it had been used, it could not be recycled or employed for any purpose other than reprinting exactly the same page. The process of carving the individual blocks was time-consuming. Errors could not easily be corrected. Gutenberg's solution allowed the reuse of type, and the ready correction of each page from "proofs."
Gutenberg's type had to be designed and produced in large quantities. The cost was huge. After Gutenberg had returned to Mainz in 1448, he was able to interest Johann Fust, a local goldsmith, in his invention. Fust backed Gutenberg to the tune of eight hundred gulden in 1450, and the same amount again in 1452--nearly two million dollars by today's standards. The type was designed by Peter Schoeffer, and was probably cast in "speculum" metal--the same metal used by Gutenberg for the mirrors that gullible pilgrims believed reflected the spiritual powers of sacred relics in their direction. This metal consisted of an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony--the last being added to harden the metal, to ensure that it resisted wear. The method of casting type devised by Gutenberg would continue to be used until 1838, when David Bruce pioneered the first typecasting machine in New York.
From the Trade Paperback edition.