What was the most important year ever? Andrew Marr suggests it was probably 1776, but Ann Wroe, The Economist's obituaries editor, casts a vote for Gutenberg's breakthrough ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
This is the year—as near as one can say—when Johannes Gutenberg, in his workshop in Mainz, first set movable metal types in a wooden frame, blacked them with ink from a roller, and saw them make words on a sheet of paper. No other single action has been so influential. A spoken word, even from the mouth of the greatest ruler, prophet or sage, dissolves into the air. Words that are printed survive, thrive and multiply.
Since 1439 words printed by Gutenberg’s process have driven every invention, change of thinking and political idea. And in Gutenberg’s type—if not in our uniform, lifeless electronic fonts—words also contain light and shade, and dance.
The same year that saw this inky, clumsy birth also saw the death of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick: warrior, pilgrim and tutor of the child-king Henry VI. His gilt-bronze effigy, in full armour, lies in St Mary’s church in Warwick. His eyes are open, and he raises his hands to the stained glass window above him, where the Virgin waits to receive him into Heaven at the Last Judgment.
That whole structure of certainty, hierarchy and faith, the closed medieval universe, was never more efficiently blown open than by the careful placing, many miles away, of little squares of metal in a press; even if printing the Bible was the first thing Gutenberg thought he would do.
Picture credit: threedots (via Flickr)
(Ann Wroe is obituaries and briefings editor of The Economist and author of "Being Shelley".)