Dramatis Personae Archive / Programme / Print Culture

When Johannes Gutenberg combined the technologies of movable type and the screw press to mechanize the art of printing around 1440, the idea that a printing machine could effectively replace the ancient manual form of textual reproduction was initially met with skepticism. Until that time, hand-written or hand-copied manuscripts were the only form of printed text. The letterpress’ early technical difficulties and the time it took to produce an “incunabulum” (printed text before 1501) did little to alter public perception of the new bel art; however, this perception changed as the art of printing improved with advancements in the mechanics of printing, mobile type setting, and the science of papermaking. The ability to rapidly produce multiple copies of a manuscript brought about a decisive change of opinion. By the mid seventeenth century, Denys de Sallo recognized the press’ potential contribution to the dissemination of knowledge and took advantage of its speed, publishing the first known science journal, the Journal des Sçavans.

Nearly one hundred years after Sallo, Diderot and the encyclopedists could see the complex relationship that had developed between mechanized printing and human understanding: “this art, which has favorably advanced the sciences […] has continued to become refined and perfected with the advancement of knowledge” (Jaucourt). In fact, he dedicated a lengthy article in the Encyclopédie to the printing press’ mechanical processes, practical uses and societal contributions. For Diderot, printing would serve to advance the purpose of the Encyclopédie, which, in his words, was to “reveal [to readers] the order and sequence of human knowledge […] explaining every science and art, [their] general principles and most essential details, which form the basis of contextual understanding” (inserts added). To this end, Diderot enlisted the help of the greatest minds of his day, and the result was a total of twenty-eight volumes; seventeen containing articles on diverse subjects of human knowledge and eleven containing etched illustrations which, despite the speed of printing in the eighteenth century, took over twenty years to complete.  The Encyclopédie was a collective effort, with many of the day’s intelligentsia contributing to the enterprise; however, rather than synthesizing the perspectives that make up the collection of knowledge in the Encyclopédie, Diderot highlighted individual contributions by printing the initials of the author at the end of each article.

Site for the British Library, offering access to two copies of Gutenberg’s Bible

English version site of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. The site is currently under construction, though some portions are complete.

Site hosted by Belmont Abbey College presents an online exhibition of rare book and special collections dating from 1474-1900.

Homepage for the Lyon Printing Museum (French Only)

PDF contains extensive history, pictures and statistics for the Press (French Only)

Home site for the French National Printing Press


Though printing itself has existed as a form of art, expression and communication since our earliest recorded history, the arrival of the printing press marked the beginning of a revolution that would progressively globalize the world by making information, ideas, knowledge, and the arts more widely accessible to everyone.

By Adam Magalei (BA 2006)

University of Utah