It’s no exaggeration to say that the printing press is a revolutionary form of technology. There are many other bottlenecks that can also limit the availability of written texts in a society, but the labor involved in copying manuscripts by hand is enormous. When that was the only way to reproduce material, the amount of material available was always going to be small. But put it into a machine, and suddenly you’ve opened up whole new realms of literature and literacy.
At this point most of you probably expect me to bring up Johannes Gutenberg, but in fact, printing presses are older than that, and didn’t start with him.
In fact, the earliest printing technology wasn’t for written text at all. There are silk fragments from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China that have flowers printed on them using a woodcut illustration. Woodblock printing, aka xylography, can be used for printing words as well, but it has a number of downsides: it’s hard to create very precise images, and the block degrades over time from use, the wood softening and wearing down. Plus it’s all well and good to carve a page of text into wood . . . but when it comes time to print page two, you have to start all over again. And while there are ways to edit if you make a mistake, on the whole, it’s pretty inflexible.
So when we talk about the “printing press” in this context, what we usually mean is movable type: a system that lets you slot existing characters into a frame, use them to print, and then remove them to be used again in different configurations.
The earliest evidence for movable type is again from China, and it dates back to centuries before Gutenberg. (A fact the fantasy novelist Jim Hines made use of in his Libriomancer series.) Bi Sheng invented movable type in the middle of the eleventh century CE, using ceramic forms for the characters. He also experimented with wooden movable type, but found it less effective; Wang Zhen developed a better version in the late thirteenth century.
But as in Europe, the real money-maker was in metallic movable type. Kind of literally: apparently some of the earliest metal-printed material in China is paper money. This got started in the twelfth century, so not long after Bi Sheng (and before Wang Zhen’s renewed experiments with wood). In Europe that idea hit in the fifteenth century, with Gutenberg adapting the “punches” then used to stamp coins and similar items, and the rest is history — a history much more abundantly documented than before.
Movable type isn’t the whole story, of course. You need quite a few ancillary ideas and technologies to go with that, like good production of paper (so you have something to print on), inks suitable to being painted onto the type (so you have something to print with), and a device that will press your frame of type onto the paper evenly. And you need bookbinding, which from Gutenberg’s day to some books still produced today involves stitching pages together in yet another labor-intensive process.
None of which is meant to downplay the importance of the movable type concept on its own. Especially for an alphabetic writing system, where the number of letterforms needed is quite small, the advantages it offers are enormous — and the consequences are even bigger.
Consider something like the Protestant Reformation. Back in those days, part of the authority of the Catholic Church rested on the fact that Bibles were rare and written in Latin, which only a small segment of the populace was educated enough to read. But printing technology made it possible to disseminate the Bible much more widely — which then paved the way for an explosion of vernacular translations that made the sacred text directly available to a much broader population, which in turn drove a lot of the theological furor of that period.
Or consider one of the earliest forms of mass media, the broadside. These provided a way to disseminate not just entertainment but news — and in fact the two often went hand-in-hand, with ballads being used to inform people about recent events. From broadsides you go to newspapers; the Venetian government produced a prototype of these in the mid-sixteenth century, but the idea really took off starting in the early seventeenth century.
Being able to print something like a newspaper is utterly transformative to culture and daily life. People become more well-informed about major events, no longer relying solely on word of mouth that might mutate with each telling. Cities extend their influence into rural areas, spreading everything from official decrees to fashion trends to scurrilous gossip. Certain forms of the language become standardized and official, exerting pressure against regional dialects.
And literacy grows by leaps and bounds. There’s more motivation to learn, and more texts to learn from. Loaning someone a book, while still a risky proposition, stops being the kind of thing for which one might demand collateral in return. You get circulating libraries, reading groups, books on topics that would never have been considered worth the effort and expense in the old days. The odds of losing a book entirely — not a single physical volume, but the text itself — drop sharply, because there are more extant copies of any given title, and the odds that one or more survive are much better. (It can still happen, of course. But not to nearly the same degree as before.)
When the topic of technology in fantasy comes up, I usually see people framing it in terms of firearms: does your fictional society have gunpowder or not? It’s a valid question; the Four Great Inventions of Chinese history are the compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. But note that when you take papermaking and printing together, half that list is heavily focused on textual matters. Even when I see guns in a secondary-world fantasy, I rarely see printing presses, or their knock-on effects. Give me more newspapers and magazines, broadsides and vernacular translations of special texts. The world needs more stories about the power of the printed word.