Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing system with his newly invented hand mould with metal movable type that allowed for printing in large quantities. This assembly line style made the mass production of books possible for the first time. Books were made available to the masses and by early 1500’s printing presses were in operation throughout Western Europe with 20 million volumes produced. Gutenberg ushered in literacy to the populace.
It is estimated that between 150 and 200 million copies were printed and distributed; introducing the era of mass communication which altered society. Ideas crossed borders and threatened the power of political and religious authorities.
This sharp uptick in literacy broke the strangle hold of the elites on education and learning in the new and emerging middle class. Europe’s increasing self-awareness led to proto-nationalism and the awakening of vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin. The increased level of literacy led to more demand for books. The entrepreneurial spirit of emerging capitalism made its impact on Medieval types of production encouraging thinking and improving efficiency for the traditional working processes.
The late middle ages brought the Black Death and the Great Famine, which greatly depopulated Europe causing social upheaval and endemic warfare. France and England experienced a serious peasant uprising; by the 1600’s a great time of progress in the Arts and the Sciences was emerging.
The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with movable type. In 1455, copies were available from Gutenberg’s single print shop in Mainz, Germany which spread printing to no less than 270 cities in Central, Western, and Eastern Europe by the end of the 15th century. The circulation of ideas and information was also responsible for the exchange of discoveries by scientists through scholarly journals bringing the scientific revolution, which also brought Martin Luther to change the face of Christianity in 1517.
If not for Gutenberg there would not have been a Reformation or a Renaissance which the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon, and other artists with creative scientific minds; might not have flourished. Francis Bacon wrote,”The printing press, nautical compass, and firearms changed the whole face and state of the world.”
A new philosophy called Humanist, returned to the works of ancient writers called the Classics, which spread critical thinking all over the world. Humanists rediscovered writings on science, government, rhetoric, philosophy, and art. This would influence men in the late medieval years throughout Europe, and this way of thinking is the foundation on which we find ourselves today.
In the 19th century Gutenberg’s style of press would be replaced by steam-powered rotary presses and allowed printing on an industrial scale. It was the sole medium for bulk printing.
On July 4th, 1971, Michael S. Hart, attending the University of Illinois, began his first user account on the university computer system. It was used for data processing only but Hart knew that they were connected to a network which would one day be the internet. His idea was to bring large amounts of texts to people all at once. He began to type the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which he had been given a copy of from a grocery store on the way home from watching fireworks. He was told that he would be unable to email this large text at once and would crash the system. Project Gutenberg was born.
Hart proceeded to invent the e-book which could deliver this text and his dream of literacy for the masses. With Hart’s invention of the e-book, along with expired copyright material in the U.S. Hart has the earliest and longest lasting online literacy projects.
Their mission statement:
“Encourage the Creation and Distribution of e-books”
“Help Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy”
“Give As Many e-books to As Many People As Possible”
Project Gutenberg has 42,000 free e-books in 60 languages, a self publishing portal, and over 100,000 books accessible through partners and affiliates. Michael S. Hart believed that you had to constantly look to the future and technology to advance thinking and literacy. He also did not believe in proprietary software, he believed in open access for all.
Altruistic as his motives were his invention of the e-book and his vision of spreading literacy to everyone would take an ugly and greedy turn. Michael Hart’s e-book would usher in a new age. Without the readily available printed book, the return to illiteracy for the masses may not be far off. How ironic that this would be the death knell, it started with the Gutenberg press and would end with the Gutenberg Project. I don’t think Michael Hart had envisioned what a profound effect e-books would have, much less the purchase for license that e-books have become and what this means for mankind and his future.
He believed as I do that open access meant, “open access without proprietary displays”. E-books have surpassed all other sales and the printed book is no longer a viable option in the marketplace. It is no longer a viable method in the delivering of ideas, information or creative thoughts. With the loss of the printed book and along with it the availability of literacy, where will the poor turn to? Many libraries and book stores have gone bankrupt and the poor will no longer be able to read or borrow books or otherwise glean information and knowledge.
With the advent of the internet crackdown of the exchange of files and e-books for people who cannot afford text books much less e-books you will never own, all books eventually will no longer be available for the masses without a tablet, e-reader, PC or laptop. In other words, they will corner the market on the exclusive rights to purchase the USE of books, new or used, plus you need to afford a device to deliver said books.
Without a credit card for these books the masses will not have access to any new ideas, creative thoughts or information-literacy. With the downturn in the world economies which plunged the masses into poverty, the availability of cash/credit went out the window. This economic situation will return the separation of the classes back to where we were with the elites being the ones who are educated, and the poor will be less creative and less productive in the decades to come. This downward spiral in society will have an adverse effect and will stifle and slow any further progress we could have made in all areas of life. The loss of human potential could be staggering when human intelligence is wasted, weighed in the balance, and lost.
World Public Library: A letter from Michael S. Hart, “A Graceful Exit” here. This is a very moving letter written by Mr. Hart before his death.