One giant leap for literacy: on August 24, 1456, the printing of the Gutenberg Bible was completed, and a whole new world of literature and information sharing was discovered. The age of the printed book had begun.
The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed with a movable type printing press. The moveable metal type pieces—made from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony still in use today—were more durable and produced lettering that was more uniform than earlier woodblock printing. The type pieces were also easy to produce, thanks to Gutenberg’s technique of casting them from hand moulds. The comparative ease with which the books could be created brought the prices of books down (they were previously only available to the fabulously rich). As printing presses spread throughout Europe, so did literacy.
It’s believed that 180 copies of the Bible were produced—135 on paper and 45 on vellum. Gutenberg didn’t mess around with his materials, either. The paper was handmade and imported from Italy, and each sheet contains a watermark left by the papermold. The fine craftsmanship wasn’t enough to prevent some douchebags from destroying a few of them, though. One copy was lost when German troops trashed the library of the Catholic University of Leuven in 1914, and in the 1920s a New York book dealer bought a damaged paper copy, pulled it apart, and sold off sections and individual pages. As of 2009, 47 or 48 copies were known to exist, but only 21 of them were complete.
The impact of the Bible wasn’t so much due to the book itself, but what the book represented. For the first time, printed matter could be mass produced relatively quickly and cheaply, allowing the swift exchange of ideas. Less than a century later, Martin Luther used the printing press to distribute his 95 Theses, which kicked off the Protestant Reformation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it fed the scientific revolution, which advanced knowledge of physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, and chemistry somewhat beyond the medieval notion of “God just made it that way or made it do that.” Unsurprisingly, Gutenberg has been hailed as a major contributor to history. In 1999 he was named the number one most influential person of the second millennium by A&E Network, and two years earlier Time-Life magazine declared his printing press the most important invention of the second millennium.