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.