Before the invention of printing, the number of manuscript books in Europe could be counted in thousands. By 1500, after only 50 years of printing, there were more than 9,000,000 books. These figures indicate the impact of the press, the rapidity with which it spread, the need for an artificial script, and the vulnerability of written culture up to that time.
Printing has been called the great German contribution to civilization. After its invention (about 1440–50) by a goldsmith of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg, printing quickly spread to the other great trading centres, Basel (1466), Nürnberg (1470), and Augsburg (1472). By 1500 there were presses in some 60 German towns, including Lübeck (1475), the head of the Hanseatic League. From there, printing spread to Denmark, Sweden, Rostock, Danzig, and Russia.
|The Gutenberg Press|
It may be said that book printing, after its birth in medieval Germany, was carried to maturity in humanistic Italy. The printing press reached Italy very early (1462–63) and by 1500, Venice had no fewer than 150 presses; and two Venetian printers exercised a decisive influence on the form of the book: Nicolas Jenson, an outstanding typographer who perfected the roman typeface in 1470, and Aldus Manutius, the greatest printer-publisher of his time.
In 1476 William Caxton established a press at Westminster, the first printing press in England. He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing. He was also the translator of many of the books he published, using his knowledge of French, Latin and Dutch.
In 1638 in America, Harvard received the first printing press that the colonies had seen. The very first printing press in the nation was used at the Cambridge Press, founded in 1639.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanics of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press were still essentially unchanged, although new materials in its construction, amongst other innovations, had gradually improved its printing efficiency. By 1800, Lord Stanhope had built a press completely from cast iron which reduced the force required by 90%, while doubling the size of the printed area.