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Essay: The importance and success of the printing press within the scientific revolution

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  • The importance and success of the printing press within the scientific revolution
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The scientific revolution was the arrival of modern science during the early modern period, with significant advances in physics, astronomy and mathematics helping lead to a transformation in societal viewpoints about nature and life itself. With this advancement, the scientific enlightenment emerged, and the Renaissance was born. A radical change in art, science and culture was seen and “connecting these three aspects was the invention of the printing press in 1440”.

The invention of the printing press allowed a change in how information, thoughts and ideas were shared among societies, with printed texts like books being dispersed throughout Europe and hence a much larger spread of knowledge was established. In the fullness of time, the scientific enlightenment was reached and the way in which humans lived changed significantly.

Before the establishment of the printed press, and therefore books, publications were very scarce and generally only available to people of high class and power such as nobles and members of the Church. This began to change when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first form of printing press and type-mould in 1440; word of this invention spread quickly and very quickly others improved on Gutenberg’s work. Although this apparatus did not immediately grant society easy access to books (which were still being seen as items of higher luxury and only meant for members of the Church), production of books was much faster and therefore they eventually became much more accessible to the general public. This lead to a higher standard of literacy throughout society; the more people read, the volume of books increases. This newfound relatively unrestricted spread of information and ideas began to threaten the political and religious powers of the time; where “the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class.”. By 1480, printing press was being used in at least 110 different places across Europe, and from then onwards it is understood that the printing press and books had become a large part of European culture.

The new developments in the printing press lead to becoming a factor in the creation of groups of scientists who were consequently able to easily express their experiments and discoveries by using heavily circulated scholarly journals, clearly showing how books helped bring on the scientific revolution. The increasing popularity of the printing press made authorship a more attractive profession as it had become more profitable and had an underlying deeper meaning. It had become of great importance who had written texts, as well as what the precise formulation and time of writing actually was. Before the heightened popularity of printed texts, the author was of much less importance and was usually lost, however, with the emergence of the scientific revolution came a significance on the scientists displaying their findings through print such as books and journals.

Printed texts helped change how Europeans communicated with each other; the way in which visual images and words were used were advanced, and as Elizabeth L. Eisentein discusses in her article, In the Wake of the Printing Press, the developments of the printing press “made it possible to bypass the confusion engendered by linguistic multiformity, by translation problems, and by diverse names for constellations, landmasses, flora, or fauna”. In essence, the printing press was not only accountable for the mass establishment and spread of knowledge, but also united already known scientific studies and specimens.

Of course, books and other forms of printed texts were not always looked upon so positively, especially at a time of strong religious beliefs and various theories. The conflict between the heliocentric and geocentric theories acted as ‘fuel to the fire’ of the scientific revolution. The church followed the geocentric theory heavily; which suggested that Earth is at the centre of the universe and other planets and the sun revolve around it. Later, in 1543, Copernicus published a book which suggested the Heliocentric model, going against the scripture of church. Consequently (despite having strong advocates for the theory such as Galileo Galilei) the works of Copernicus were forbidden by the Roman Inquisition. This essentially highlights the role that the printing press had on the scientific revolution; knowledge was now much more accessible and this become a crucial aspect of the shift of society from Medieval to early modern, and Pierce Butler suggests this in his own works; “down to the fifteenth century all European books were pen written and that ever since that time most of them have been printed. We know likewise that is the same fifteenth century Western culture laid off its medieval characteristics and became distinctively modern”. It is no coincidence that the breakup of Europe’s religious unity corresponded with the spread of printed text; there was a direct impact which shifted a focus onto more scientific ideologies rather than religious ones.

On the other hand, there are arguments present that the printing press did not have a role that as significant as may been seen. There were many cases of exploitation of the print being seen; “exploitation of the mass medium was more common among pseudoscientists and quacks than among Latin-writing professional scientists, who often withheld their work from the press”. Essentially, when important ideas did appear in print, they did not reach the status of becoming a bestseller. This lead to a higher circulation of outdated materials rather than ones posing newer ideas supporting the scientific revolution, which has led to some academics suggesting that printed texts were not as influential as what is frequently argued. “There is no evidence that, except in religion, printing hastened the spread of new ideas… In fact the printing of medieval scientific texts may have delayed the acceptance of… Copernicus.” Obviously, the spread of knowledge is only one of several features that the printing press introduced that needs to be considered when looking at the developments of scientific change. As with any historical demarcation, historians often disagree about the boundaries of the scientific revolution, with some seeing elements contributing to the revolution as soon as the 14th century and having its final stages in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, despite these disagreements, there is a general acceptance that there was a period between that saw a fundamental change in scientific ideas and institutions, and the more widely held ‘picture of the universe’

Although it was the Chinese who invented the first known printing techniques, Gutenberg should be accredited as the ‘father of printing’. The system which he developed and introduced had caused a half million books to enter circulation by 1500, with ranging topics from classical Greek texts to Columbus’ account of the New World. Historians argue that not only did the introduction of the printing press influence scientific explorations, it was also one of the key factors in the explosion of the Renaissance. Martin Luther used the form of printed text to launch the Protestant Reformation in 1517 when he defied the Pope through Ninety-five Theses, thus causing the religious nature of society to spiral downwards even more so.

The democratization of knowledge can be looked at in three stages when discussing the printing press. Firstly, there was the mass production of new and old text being produced, as well as the first copyright laws being passed. This meant that academics of science were able to gain credit for the theories and experiments which they discovered, however, there was criticism where the printing press allowed the dissemination of information which may have been incorrect. Secondly, there was the decline of Latin as the most published language in printed texts. This was replaced by the common language of each area of publishing, subsequently increasing the variety of overall published works. This also meant that society was able to receive and ‘digest’ a great deal of information on the hundreds of new developments in science, even if not educated in Latin during its decline. Finally, the higher levels of city growth also led to the popularity of printed texts, as this gave rise to individual traders. This created a pathway for intellects who wanted to provide information on their theories and studies without having to go through merchant guilds. All of these factors highlight the importance of the printing press in the scientific revolution; academia were able to publish their findings and research to the general public without censors from the Church, and although potentially a negative side effect, this could be done by anyone, allowing a substantial amount of new ideas and thoughts being digested by society.

It is hard to establish a negative role that printed books had on the development of the scientific revolution. If being pedantic, the only negative which can be immediately highlighted is the environmental issues that arose from the printing press machinery. It is much clearer when observing the more positive roles printed text had on endeavours of science. As highlighted, when information and readings are controlled to a few, it’s very easy to hold an influence over entire societies, however the invention of the printing press meant that literacy levels climbed and promotion of an exchange of ideas lead to differing ideas growing populations emboldened by choice.

The scientific revolution changed the way society saw the world around it. Until the early modern period, there were only ‘scientific observers’ as such, who only read texts which had been published at a previous date and assumed its truth. The printing press and the Renaissance changed this and galvanised the scientific society. It was then that the three classic headers of early science, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic anatomy and Aristoleian physics, met their downfalls and were instead replaced by the science of new academics such as Newton and Copernicus.

The importance and success of the printing press within the scientific revolution is evident. The availability to spread theories and thoughts quickly and widely allowed for an “acceleration of scientific discovery and progress unlike anything that had been seen before.” By looking at Copernicus’s ‘De revolutionbus’ this is clear. The first edition in 1543 included around 450 copies followed by a similar figure in 1566, and eventually was established in the biggest libraries and known by the majority of astronomy professors in the sixteenth century.

Concluding, publication before printing was often portrayed through oral exchange; “print culture made possible the simultaneous distribution of well-made figures and charts” This meant that it laid the basis for new confidence within humans’ capacity to arrive at certain knowledge; “Alongside the truth of revelation comes now an independent and original truth of nature” is discussed by Cassirer and highlights a significant change in intellect within society at the time. Printed books massively allowed a growth of knowledge and communication in Europe, as well as allowing scientists to publish their own thoughts which influenced other academics in their own work. The printing of books was one of the most influential inventions of the century, and was a hugely significant part to the success of the scientific revolution.


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