The Emergence of the Printing Press and Its Affect on Early Modern Scientific Communication

Today, the results of scientific experiments surround us and cannot be ignored; they are featured in the morning newspapers, in online journals with public access, non-fiction sections of bookstores, and on an almost infinite number of websites. This deluge of scientific information that surrounds us every day is a rather new development and is directly correlated to how we define present-day ‘science.’

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Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Obrium Coelestium, 1566.
Photo by Carlyn Osborn, 2014.

Our concept of current science is heavily dependent on the open communication of experimental results and ensuring that scientific secrets are not being kept. You need enough people to read experimental outcomes for any hope of consensus and only with this broad, general agreement can we begin to determine scientific objectivity.

However, this vast expanse of freely available scientific information stands in direct opposition to the very limited availability of secret, scientific information in the early modern period. Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the degree of availability and secrecy changed, influenced heavily by moveable-type printing, William Eamon, Regents Professor of History at New Mexico State University Honors College argues that the catalysts for the seventeenth century movement away from secrecy in science were multifarious and stretched across several centuries. While several factors played vital roles in the movement away from secrecy in science, I propose that the invention of the printing press and moveable type had the greatest impact upon the sharing of scientific knowledge.

It would be hard to overstate the influence the printing press and moveable type had on history. Popularized around 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468), the printing press enabled the mass production of reliable and accurate texts. Its introduction to western Europe resolved several dilemmas that plagued the fifteenth century, including exorbitant manuscript prices, slow book production, and unreliable facsimiles. These three features of medieval manuscript culture all factored into the incredibly slow, unreliable method of knowledge dissemination in the fifteenth century.

The production of books and manuscripts took place at glacial pace due largely to the fact that each one had to be copied by hand. Handwritten reproductions were often riddled with mistakes, depending on the knowledge and education of the copyist and on the total number of translations the text underwent. Gutenberg’s invaluable popularization of the printing press helped reduce the volume of typographical errors by completely eliminating the copyist and also provided a reliable method of reproducing images and diagrams. Furthermore, more accurate translations of ancient texts, produced during the translation movement a few hundred years before in the Latin West, could be printed. The elimination of handwritten pages and outdated translations help save influential texts from textual corruption.

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Claudius Ptolemy, The Almagest (Book IV), 1528.
Photo by Carlyn Osborn, 2014.

The printing press fundamentally changed the way members of the scientific community communicated among themselves and with the public. By using the press, scientists could accurately publish their work, thus helping to eliminate the secret nature of earlier medieval science. Science was now a form of public knowledge, which is a characteristic it shares with science during the scientific revolution and with our contemporary notion of science. The printing press demonstrated a new desire for the broader dissemination of knowledge, which played into a wider zeitgeist: early moderns were no longer interested in keeping knowledge private.

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