Innovation Lessons from the Printing Press

by Steve King on May 19, 2009

The invention of the movable type printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg is considered one of the greatest innovations of all time. Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the creation and distribution of information and movable type presses are still in use today.

The printing press is a great example of disruptive innovation, which is a technology, process or business model that brings to market a more affordable and/or easier to use product or service.

Prior to the printing press books were printed by hand and were rare and extremely expensive. Gutenberg’s bible, released in 1455, sold for less than 10% of the cost of competing hand written bibles.

By 1500 printing was widespread throughout Europe. Over 2500 printing houses were producing millions of printed materials each year. And most of the monks involved in making books had moved on to other tasks.

One of the most interesting innovation lessons is that Gutenberg adapted existing technology to create the movable type printing press.

His press was based on the wine and olive presses in use at the time. Wood block printing was also an existing technology, having arrived in Europe from Asia several centuries earlier.

Gutenberg did invent the metal type faces and block matrix used in the printing press. But the metallurgy knowledge and skills required to do this were widely known and these were more incremental than radical innovations.

Southwest Airlines, Charles Schwab, Dell Computer are other examples of companies using existing technology to disrupt industries.

As with Gutenberg, the entrepreneurs starting these companies realized there were great opportunities from changing industry rules to greatly expand the market. Instead of inventing brand new technology, they created new business models, methods or processes.

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