Why Gutenberg is overrated as an innovator

No, not Steven Gutenberg. The other one.

Johann Gutenberg’s name appears on most Western lists of the most influential people in history, often in the top 10, sometimes as #1. In the U.S. most people know him as either the inventor of the printing press, or the creator of movable type: but it turns out neither claim is accurate.

It’s a well established fact that the Chinese had used movable type printing of various kinds in the 13th century. The Chinese also invented paper, and contributed, along with the Greeks, to various inking and writing techniques.

Gutenberg deserves credit for 3 significant things:

  1. Masterful improvements to movable type techniques. The level of craftsmanship he applied to various elements, from inks, to moldings, to a variation on the screw press, was impressive. But he didn’t invent inks, moldings, or the concept of movable type, only variations, enhancements and modifications to them.
  2. Engineered a high quality, efficient printing system. Much like how Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb, but did create the first light/power system, Gutenberg was the first Westerner to make all the pieces work in a functional, affordable, reproducible system. Though sadly for his bank account, he didn’t profit from the system, but did prove it could work.
  3. Created beautiful bibles that successfully combined new typographic and printing techniques. The bibles he printed were aesthetic and functional improvements on previous printing works and were exceptional proofs of concept for the viability of print production.

Gutenberg’s major asset in these achievements, beyond the luck of a well funded partner, was the Western alphabet: movable type stalled in China because their character set is enormous, compared to the 20-26 of most Western languages. This was the conceptual turning point that made his improvements possible. Instead of designing a system to support 150 characters, he only needed to support 23.

Gutenberg’s place in history was not secure in his lifetime – he died relatively obscure and certainly poor. Little was written about him at the time, and our knowledge of his thoughts on his work are extremely limited. There’s no evidence that he had any noble ambitions for freeing knowledge, improving the world or (re)paving the way for democracy.

So for the history of innovation, and the most influential people in the last 1000 years, Gutenberg’s place is well-overstated. He is at best credited with exceptional craftsmanship and evolution of an idea – developments that likely would have happened in the West without him – and his intellectual and creative contributions pale in comparison to Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, Tesla, Einstein or dozens of others typically ranked well below Gutenberg on these lists.

Arnold Pacey’s great book on innovation history, The mazes of ingenuity, has this to say in explanation of Gutenberg’s inflated profile:

“The idea that Gutenberg was the sole inventor the printing press grew up at the end of the 15th century, at a time when people had come to think of the work of any great artist, or poet, or inventor, as the product of special creative genius which the majority of ordinary men did not posses.”

And James Burke, in Connections, writes:

Even as we name Gutenberg, the canonical inventor of that technology, the Chinese trump us once more. In AD 1045, a printer named Pi-Sheng did almost what Gutenberg would do 410 years later. He shaped individual characters on the ends of small square clay rods and aligned them face up, in a shallow tray lined with warm wax. He laid a board across the array and pressed it down until each character was at exactly the same level. When the wax cooled he used this array to print images.

Like many myths of innovation I discovered while researching the book The Myths of Innovation, it was socially and politically convenient for Western society to consolidate the development of printing under the heroic image of a local sole inventor, rather than the more accurate truth of printings development by many people primarily from foreign cultures.

The Internet age is filled with similiar conveniences in assigning credit for things like the Internet, the web browser, and the PC.

Who do you think is overrated in their influence today? And why?

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8 Responses to “Why Gutenberg is overrated as an innovator”

  1. Jeroen

    While all true, I don’t think the fact that Pi-Sheng (or other Chinese) invented it first should necessarily affect Gutenberg’s status very much. After all, he was the first printer in Europe (without knowledge of the Chinese technique) and he did start the printed books revolution in Europe. So he wasn’t the first, but he had the most impact – which is definitely what counts when applied to business.

    (There’s even some doubt that Gutenberg was the first European printer, although he most likely was. See http://www.psymon.com/koster/)

    Reply
  2. Scott (admin)

    Hey, we’re all entitled to our opinions – that’s part of the fun, especially when we’re talking about top 10 lists :)

    btw: He was definitely not the first “printer” in Europe – not by a longshot. Coster was born in the 1300s). There’s evidence of other printers before and during his lifetime – it’s just they used more primative techniques, and failed to successfully combine all the pieces and make the necessary improvements to create an effective system.

    Any my point isn’t that Gutenberg is a sham – what he did was very important. But compared to the other notables of history, his contribution, his actual work, pales in comparison. Thus, my claim that he’s overrated.

    The printing press took off not because of some grand leap on Gutenberg’s part – he did a bunch of clever and important things for sure, but not amazing things. But closing that gap was all that was needed for printing to take off in the perfectly ripe European culture of the 15th century.

    This does beg the question of whether someone’s influence, or importance, can be seperated from the time they were born in. That aside, I feel the impact of Gutenberg’s work was wildly disproportionate to the scale of innovation on his part and that leverage had little to do with Gutenberg himself.

    Reply
  3. Angus

    Scott, I’d say Dave Winer and RSS, but I’ve given a more complete answer on
    my blog.

    Reply
  4. Werner

    Scott,

    a bit of nitpicking facts is in order here to avoid some wrong impressions by your comment not by a long shot. Coster was born in the 1300s which makes it sound like a gap of a hundred years.

    Coster was born in 1370 and seems to have printed with moveable types around 1420. Gutenberg started experimenting in the 1430s and produced his bible in 1454/5. Considering that things did not move as quickly then as nowadays, a timespan of 10-20 years is nowhere near a ‘long shot’.

    I also cannot see how Coster’s work takes anything away from Gutenberg’s work. He delivered the breakthrough; after him there is no going back. He and his work mark a tremendously important point in time, and, I think, that is why people rate him so high. In other words, his name has become synonymous with the event.

    Nothing new here either. For example, Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity fundamentally changed our point of view, but all the mathematics had already been worked out by Lorentz and Poincare. But who remembers their names except some physicists?

    Reply
  5. Scott (admin)

    Werner: Dodging the history review for a moment, where would you place Guttenberg on the list of most influential people of the last 1000 years? Do you think he deserves a place in the top 10?

    Reply
  6. Dale Bart

    You under rate Gutenberg’s achievements. Gutenberg must be given credit for several other key items

    1. Use of a “press” in printing. Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press. Use of a mechanical press allowed for greater consistency than hand pressing

    2. Development of type metal – Chinese used bronze for metal type, which was inferior, since it required more than twice the temperature to metal bronze than type metal. You can easily melt type metal, which is why type metal has been used for 500 years.

    3. The use of steel punches to make the copper molds to cast the type. For the same labor that it took to carve one mold, you could make one punch, and then have semi-skilled labor make many molds from the punch

    Reply

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