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How A Few Simple Inventions Changed The Written World

Our world is usually changed by small things. Small minorities, small movements, or small changes to existing ideas often trigger big changes.

Until the middle of the 1400s, there was no way to communicate an idea other than by telling it directly to someone, or writing it down by hand. For thousands of years, Scripture, historical facts, or stories were recorded and disseminated slowly and painstakingly, letter by letter and page by page. Books could only be owned by the incredibly wealthy, and copied only by professional scribes or dedicated monks. Few people needed to learn to read, since reading materials were scarce.

Even paper was expensive! For thousands of years, paper had been tediously pounded out of wet reeds or rags. It was simple but hard work, a job that was ripe for mechanization. It was in the early 1300s that water-powered paper mills began to appear in southern Europe. Water wheels were not a new invention, first appearing in Greek and Roman records around 300 BC, but they were rarely used.

It wasn’t until after the fall of Rome, when Christian civilization came to Europe, that the water wheel found widespread use. Inventors found more and more jobs that could be done by wind and water power: grinding wheat, churning butter, pumping bellows, hammering iron, and then pounding out cheap paper. This was a major development, but it didn’t change the world…not quite yet.

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Enter the Printing Press

It was sometime around 1450 that Johannes Gutenberg built his first printing press. None of its individual components were new; its mechanical parts had been used for crushing olives and grapes for centuries, and printing with woodcuts was fairly common. However, Gutenberg tied all these ideas together, and used lead letters and ink of his own design to print entire books quickly and cheaply.

In 1455 he published his first book, a Latin translation of the Bible. Literacy was limited, but printing presses popped up around Europe. This amazing new combination of cheap paper and the ability to print words quickly was a powder keg, just waiting for the right spark.

In 1517, a young monk in a small German town nailed a letter to the door of his local church. He disagreed with some of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal positions, and posted, on this equivalent of a town bulletin board, an offer to discuss 95 points of doctrine with the priests. A young printer, desperate for content for his new press, typed up Luther’s 95 Theses, and began selling them.

The Power Keg Explodes

The Pope was angry, German princes were perturbed, but Martin Luther grabbed the bull by both horns. None of Luther’s ideas were new, but their time, like that of the press, had come. Over the next two years, more than 300,000 copies of various pamphlets and tracts were bought by common men. Luther spent much of his life hiding from the armies of kings and Emperors, and the fury of Catholicism opposition, but he had something new: the power of a free press.

In 1522 he published his own German translation of the New Testament, and ten years later, the Old Testament. This Bible, far more widely read than Gutenberg’s Latin version, did more to cultivate the theology and freedoms of Europe than Luther could have ever imagined. When he died in 1546, he had written dozens of books and hymns, and, as history shows, started an unstoppable Reformation that would oppose Catholic errors and the tyranny of kings for centuries.

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However, it is often overlooked that he also used the power of the press to educate all of Germany. His Bible did more to develop and establish the German language than any other book in history. He made Germany the center of typesetting and printing technology to this day, and his work inspired a generation of translators and thinkers that drove literacy and literature to new heights in the rest of Europe.

This story is a great example of how God works providentially in history, bringing together all the elements that He requires for His plans, in His timing, using even small inventions like water wheels and paper mills. God establishes the work of those who make the most of the talents and opportunities that He gives them.

We live in an amazing time, where ideas can be communicated even more quickly and more widely than in Luther’s age. What will we do with the technologies and opportunities that we have been given today?

About Isaac Botkin

Isaac Botkin is a filmmaker, graphic designer and historian. Since his early experiences in cultural warfare, he has seen how much ideas influence culture, and how the events of history will shape today's worldviews. He works alongside his parents and six siblings in their ministry, Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences. Isaac has been married to his wife Heidi for almost a year, and they are expecting their first baby this summer.

One comment

  1. “Water wheels were not a new invention, first appearing in Greek and Roman records around 300 BC, but they were rarely used.” Rarely used? Granted, few have survived from Roman times, but the
    complex at Barbegal (sp?) in France is astounding even today. One unit with two rows of eight
    water-wheels, used for grinding grain. The Romans used water-wheels extensively, including for
    slicing rock. I would have to say that “rarely used” is totally inaccurate.

    “Catholicism opposition” makes no grammatical sense.

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