Cities of the page

The rapid spread of the printing press, after its invention by Gutenberg around 1450, still stands as one of history’s most remarkable examples of technological transformation. Jeremiah Dittmar, an American University professor who has been studying the economic consequences of the early diffusion of printing technology, provides a striking visual representation of the print explosion, showing how, over just 50 years, printing presses spread from a single city – Gutenberg’s Mainz – to more than 200 cities throughout Europe:


What makes the diffusion of printing so remarkable is not just that it began in the late Middle Ages, when news, ideas, and people moved exceedingly slowly (by today’s standards), but also that printing encompassed a complex system of devices and processes – not only the press itself but metallurgy, the design and casting of typographical symbols of standardized size, the creation of new oil-based inks, the expertise required to set type and work the press, and so forth – and that the inventions were very much treated as trade secrets. It seems clear that the desire for the products of the press was overwhelming.

There has, up to now, been a lot of uncertainty and controversy surrounding the economic ramifications of the printing press. Dittmar’s new paper, Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press, sheds some new light on the question. He studied the relative growth of the cities that were the sites of early presses. He found that the cities that had print shops by the end of the 15th century “grew at least 20 percentage points – and as much as 78 percentage points – more than similar cities” over the course of the next century. That suggests that “the impact of printing accounted for at least 18 and as much as 68 percent of European city growth between 1500 and 1600.” The printing press appears to have had profound economic and demographic effects as well as cultural ones.

7 thoughts on “Cities of the page

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    How does he treat the obvious correlation/causation problem – that the press operators would likely be attracted to high-growth environments, rather than the press causing the high-growth environments.

    Similarly, today, fast broadband is correlated with wealthy cities – but putting fast broadband into a poor city doesn’t make it a wealthy one. Rather, the fast broadband business tends to go to where the rich people are.

  2. Nick Carr

    Seth, Good question. See section 5.3 of the paper, where he discusses the regression analysis he used, which controlled for “the geographic, institutional, and cultural growth factors identified in the economic history, urban economics, and eco- nomic geography literatures as determining urban growth: population size; the historic presence of political and educational institutions (political capitals and historic universities); the nature of economic institutions securing protection against expropriation; and advantages associated with locations at sea ports, navigable rivers, and sites where Roman settlements were established.” Nick

  3. dturcqboostzoneblog

    A similar series of questions will be interesting for the next 10 years at least around the diffusion of electronic books and magazines. Will it spread faster in places with already rich and educated individuals or will it lead to faster education and growth in currently relatively remote areas? Will it help generate a dynamic by which skills and culture will be available more broadly and will it even allow several populations to leapfrog the distribution of paper based information. I would bet for the leapfrogging hypothesis.

  4. Tom Lord

    The regression analysis isn’t all that persuasive as described. It would be nice to have diffusion maps for other new-to-market technologies and other goods from the same 1400 to 1500 period and see how many of those also correlate with subsequent disproportionate city growth and how strongly.

    Hey, Wikipedia points out that clocks improved quite a bit in the 15th century. Maybe that was more important to those cities than the press.

    It would also be interesting to look at the concentric circles of diffusion from Maiz, look at the cities that did not get presses prior to 1500, and look for structural reasons why they were passed by and why they didn’t grow as fast.

    Perhaps the press cities had some preceding advantage that just isn’t all that widely recognized, and that technology per se wasn’t that important.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    I just realized, the following is a pretty strong argument that cause and effect are reversed (i.e. the press businesses went to growing cities): “but also that printing encompassed a complex system of devices and processes – not only the press itself but metallurgy, the design and casting of typographical symbols of standardized size, the creation of new oil-based inks, the expertise required to set type and work the press, and so forth”. That would suggest that in order to set up a printing press in the first place, the city would already need to have had good material supply lines and a skilled workforce, both strong indicators of future growth.

  6. Jeremiah

    These questions around causation are the ones that get aired immediately in every academic seminar.

    The argument:

    First, the timing is right. The places printers went were *not* growing especially quickly before the press.

    Second, the pattern of diffusion *arguably* gives us a way to crack the causation question.

    Cities close to Gutenberg were more apt to get printing presses than other similarly advantaged, cultured, and lovely places.

    Known for elegance in prose, this is what economists would style “exogenous variation in adoption”.

    To suss out the impact of the press on this basis, the claim must be that proximity to Mainz did not bestow special advantages on cities. Except by raising the odds that your town would receive a press.

    Broadly, the story here is one where an economist formalizes and quantifies claims made with greater nuance by social historians…

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