Internet's Roots Stretch Nearly 600 Years to Gutenberg Printing Press

NEWS ANALYSIS: The single most important invention of the past millennium that revolutionized society, science and technology started out as a way to make wine.

Mainz, Germany—The lever was cool to the touch as I grasped it, reaching head high with both hands. "Pull hard," the man next to me advised, so I did, and kept pulling as the lever creaked. "That's enough," he said, "you can let go now."

I dropped my hands to my side and then helped the museum staffer from the Gutenberg Museum here slide the printing plate and the paper it held from beneath the press. I held out my hands, and in them he placed a paper in Germanic script and the Latin text. It was a newly printed page from Gutenberg's Bible. But it was more than that. It was from the device that had changed civilization forever.

While the printing press with moveable type that Johannes Gutenberg developed nearly 600 years ago seems modest by today's standards, there is a direct technological link between this machine—with parts originally designed for a wine press—and the Internet.

The printing press led almost immediately to the printing revolution, widespread literacy and the development of mass communications. Today, the ultimate means of mass communications is the Internet and the HTML language. HTML itself is derived from a markup language to specify document formatting for printing. It is, in effect, a means for printing on a screen instead of paper.

But being able to produce printed pages isn't what changed civilization. In addition, Gutenberg, as is the case with many who created a transformative technology, developed his inventions based on previous inventions. Printing presses existed before Gutenberg, as did moveable type. But it was the combination of several technologies put together that made the difference.

When Gutenberg launched his startup printing shop in 1439, it was the combination of the press, metallic type, a device to make more metallic letters, an oil-based ink and the concept of mass production that made the difference. In fact, many believe that it was Gutenberg's type-molding device that allowed the quick production of letters or symbols that were required for printing a page that made much of the difference. With this, he could use a pre-made mold of a letter or a mold of some other symbol and pour an alloy of lead, tin and antimony into the mold to create the letter on a type block.

The ability to create new letters or new symbols (punctuation marks, for example) as needed meant that printing production could be ramped up to the pace necessary to print as many documents as were required.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...