Patterns of Innovation: Gutenberg Printing Press

Micaela Tam

Ever wondered why the news industry is referred to as “the press?” Here’s a hint: it’s linked directly to an invention that opened up an era of mass communications — unparalleled until the arrival of the Internet. The Gutenberg printing press.

While the widespread effects of Gutenberg’s printing press have shaped the world we live in today, the ingenuity of Gutenberg doesn’t lie in the consequences of his invention, but in how he realized the link between already existing objects. Not only that, Gutenberg made use of his experiences and the resources around him to refine the functions of his printing press.

The invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press is prime example of combinatorial innovation. Movable type printing, which uses movable parts to replicate documents, was invented by Pi Sheng, a Chinese inventor, four-hundred years earlier. Gutenberg built upon this concept and introduced the first metal movable type in Europe. It is probable that experiences and insights gathered from his association with the guild of goldsmiths, painters, and saddlers prompted Gutenberg to make the moveable type process more efficient through the developments of hand mould matrices made out of new, more durable alloy and an oil-based ink thick and dark enough to transfer onto the metal type. Paper, invented centuries before, proved a good material to use for printing. Winemakers in Rhineland, the winemaking center of Germany of which Gutenberg was native, used the screw press to extract juices from grapes. Utilizing this technology, Gutenberg modified the wine press to function as a component of a printing machine. Because of his perception, Gutenberg combined all these elements together to make a printing press that spread rapidly across the European continent and launched a whole new era of mass communications that transcended borders, democratized knowledge, and gave birth to an enterprise of media called “the press.”

The story of the Gutenberg printing press is a paradigm of the patterns of innovation. More specifically, combinatorial innovation. We tend to imagine Eureka moments as miraculous and rare, belonging only to the minds of oracles who, either accidentally or purposely, managed to perceive a completely new idea. But this is not the case. As Mark Twain puts it, “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Gutenberg’s invention shows that combining the utility of components creates a whole new set of functions, which are also potential sources of innovations and new combinations. We draw from the knowledge and experiences of people around us, add our own insights to them, and form new innovations that either make the functions of old innovations more efficient or result in inventions that function completely differently from what it’s components were intended for. In the following weeks, we’ll be featuring one article a week demonstrating new worlds of possibilities opened up through combinatorial innovation. We hope you enjoyed today’s feature!!