The impact of the printing press
The printing press had dramatic effects on European civilization. Its immediate effect was that it spread information quickly and accurately. This helped create a wider literate reading public. However, its importance lay not just in how it spread information and opinions, but also in what sorts of information and opinions it was spreading. There were two main directions printing took, both of which were probably totally unforeseen by its creators.
First of all, more and more books of a secular nature were printed, with especially profound results in science. Scientists working on the same problem in different parts of Europe especially benefited, since they could print the results of their work and share it accurately with a large number of other scientists. They in turn could take that accurate, not miscopied, information, work with it and advance knowledge and understanding further. Of course, they could accurately share their information with many others and the process would continue. By the 1600’s, this process would lead to the Scientific Revolution of the Enlightenment, which would radically alter how Europeans viewed the world and universe.
The printing press also created its share of trouble as far as some people were concerned. It took book copying out of the hands of the Church and made it much harder for the Church to control or censor what was being written. It was hard enough to control what Wycliffe and Hus wrote with just a few hundred copies of their works in circulation. Imagine the problems the Church had when literally thousands of such works could be produced at a fraction of the cost. Each new printing press was just another hole in the dyke to be plugged up, and the Church had only so many fingers with which to do the job. It is no accident that the breakup of Europe’s religious unity during the Protestant Reformation corresponded with the spread of printing. The difference between Martin Luther’s successful Reformation and the Hussites’ much more limited success was that Luther was armed with the printing press and knew how to use it with devastating effect.
Some people go as far as to say that the printing press is the most important invention between the invention of writing itself and the computer. Although it is impossible to justify that statement to everyone’s satisfaction, one can safely say that the printing press has been one of the most powerful inventions of the modern era. It has advanced and spread knowledge and molded public opinion in a way that nothing before the advent of television and radio in the twentieth century could rival. If it were not able to, then freedom of the press would not be such a jealously guarded liberty as it is today.