100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Printing Press
Year of Invention: 1454

What Is It? A device to make multiple identical copies of a document using
movable type characters and letters.

Who Invented It? Johannes Gutenberg (in Mainz, Germany)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Many have called the printing press the greatest single invention in the last 2,000 years. The printing press could print more copies in a few weeks than formerly could have been produced in lifetimes of work by hand. The printing press made mass literacy and education possible.

The scientific revolution depended on scientists being able to record and share their findings. The printing press made it possible for scientists to read what others had discovered. The printing press changed the fundamental structure of human society, thought, and activity.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Copies of documents had always been made by hand—most commonly by monks. Books were frightfully slow to produce and outrageously expensive. Worse, hand copying produced errors. Each new generation of copies compounded the errors.

The answer to these problems was printing. Printing started in China. In 1040, Pi Sheng invented printing using movable clay pottery characters as his type. Pi Sheng is the true inventor of movable type printing. More impressive, while the western alphabet requires printers to work with 26 letters, Pi Sheng had to make multiple clay copies of over 5,000 Chinese characters for his printing.

In 1403, King Htai Tjong of Korea invented movable metal type—much sturdier and more practical than Pi Sheng’s clay type. But he did not develop an entire printing system to use with his type.

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