The Gutenberg imagination

Gutenberg did not develop the printing press because manuscripts were not good enough. He didn’t invent the printed book because the demand for handwritten books outstripped the supply that scribes could deliver. He invented the press because he had the imagination to implement available technology in an area no-one in Europe had previously thought about. The Gutenberg press is essentially a collection of inverted seal matrixes (moveable type) arranged according to a careful pattern in order to make impressions onto a waxless surface (paper). Seals had been used for centuries, paper had been available for a while – what was lacking was the imagination to connect the dots, and put the technologies together.

This kind of imagination had produced other results in the centuries leading to Gutenberg’s breakthrough. One was the watermill – applying the technology of the windmill to a river course, converting the force of the river into mechanical energy. It’s not that wind was in short supply, or that rivers were begging to be fitted with mills. Some Cistercian monks moved away from the usual and the familiar towards more imaginative horizons.

Contrary to popular opinion, Gutenberg did not have a eureka moment. Nor was he an isolated hero. He worked in a team with several associates, whom history has edited out. Gutenberg himself had experimented with various blends of metals in search of stronger fonts capable to withstand the pressure during printing. His success was a mixture of imagination and hard work, of thinking outside the box while sitting inside the box and doing the hard work.

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