How did the printing press transform both the private and public lives of Europeans?

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The oldest known printing press in recorded history originated in China, not Europe. However, approximately 150 years after the printing press was discovered in China, a German named Johannes Guttenberg devised a printing press in Strasbourg, France. He began working on the machine in 1440 and had it ready for...

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The oldest known printing press in recorded history originated in China, not Europe. However, approximately 150 years after the printing press was discovered in China, a German named Johannes Guttenberg devised a printing press in Strasbourg, France. He began working on the machine in 1440 and had it ready for commercial printing by 1450. Besides pamphlets, calendars, and other smaller projects, Gutenberg printed about 180 copies of a 1,300-page edition of the Bible. Printing spread rapidly throughout Western Europe, and it is estimated that by 1500 about 20 million books had already been printed.

Previously, every edition of a book had to be laboriously written by hand, so books were extremely expensive and very few people possessed them or could read them. Printing presses brought in an era of mass communication in which anybody who could read had access to information. Knowledge was no longer in the hands of a powerful literate elite. Instead, as books became more plentiful, many more people learned to read, and transformational ideas became available to the masses. This shook the power structures of society that then controlled Europe. For instance, it was the printing press and the mass dissemination of information that made possible the Protestant Revolution, which weakened the power of the Catholic Church.

The printing press hastened the spread of scientific discoveries through journals and books. Scientists such as Nicolaus Copernicus were able to more easily spread their then-revolutionary ideas. The printing press hastened the spread of Renaissance ideas as wealthy patrons financed the printing of classic works by Aristotle, Plato, and others.

The spread of literacy that the printing press brought about also affected people on a personal level, especially in the areas of education and freedom of thought. With the availability of books, readers were no longer dependent upon an elite group of educated teachers for knowledge. Instead, they could educate themselves. They were also not limited in their thinking by the decisions of those educated few. They were able to question long-held tenets of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought through critical reasoning.

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Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, invented around 1440 in the midst of the Renaissance, gave people more access to written literature, including religious texts and political pamphlets.

Previously, literacy had been limited to members of the clergy, the aristocracy, and members of the merchant class. The printing press expanded the possibilities for people who had not previously had opportunities to learn to read.

The Protestant Reformation would not have happened without the printing press. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. His list of grievances against the indulgences of the Catholic Church was soon published and distributed as a result of the printing press.

Gutenberg's press also allowed for the Bible to be printed and distributed for private use. Previously, worshipers were beholden to clergymen to explain to them what the Bible said and what Scripture meant. Now, Christians were able to read the Bible for themselves and interpret its meaning. This personal relationship with Scripture was a key aspect of the Protestant Reformation.

In the eighteenth-century the printing press would be used to print and distribute political pamphlets, such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Ideas such as Paine's would be key to the Enlightenment, which would later inspire the major Atlantic revolutions: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the uprising in Haiti.

Access to printed information enriched people's lives. They could enjoy literature, create a more personal relationship with God, and read political ideas. The printing press allowed people to consider what they thought about the world, thus allowing them to engage with it more constructively.

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