How Did People Communicate Before the Printing Press Was Invented?

Carrier pigeons helped people communicate before the invention of the printing press.
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Before the invention of the printing press, people relied mostly on speech and hand-written messages to communicate. The printing press revolutionized the movement of information and expanded the number of people receiving news. Johann Gutenberg, a German jeweler, goldsmith and metallurgist, invented the movable-type press in 1448. The debt-ridden entrepreneur turned to printing bibles using a wine press with metal block letters and ink he created through experimenting with different formulas. Other inventors developed movable print presses in China and the Netherlands, but Gutenberg and his partner Johann Fust operated the first successful press business using the new technique.

1 Slow Communication

Communication before the printing press remained local, and common people relied on word of mouth to transfer important information. Few people traveled outside the village and information delivery relied on outside visitors arriving with news. Researchers link the invention of the printing press to the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. The circulation of printed materials produced on the new press put common people in contact with ideas and information in a way that was unprecedented.

2 Formal Manuscripts

People communicated with books, messages and written notices before Gutenberg, but scribes created these by hand at great expense. Monks typically specialized in lettering and hand-illustrating books, pamphlets and single-page broadsides. Block printing was common before 1448, but it was time-consuming to create a new block for each print job. The months and years required to produce a single book meant that only the wealthiest could buy books -- and the access to communication.

3 Town Criers

Before the invention of the printing press, the town crier yelling "oyez!" and a clanging bell let villagers know to gather to hear important news. Official criers had loud voices and spoke clearly to read pronouncements announcing laws, regulations and official news from authorities. Royal pronouncements typically used a written document posted on the drawbridge, castle door or main bridge into the village, but residents needed the crier to announce the information for those who were unable to read.

4 Human and Animal Messengers

Human messengers traveled on foot or horseback to transmit important information contained on handwritten notes, and groups of people could also send messages to others nearby using signals created with smoke, fire, drums and whistles. Such signals increased the odds of misinterpretation, and the use of written communications helped better clarify the message. But delivery of written messages took time and might be impossible during severe weather . Moving messages through unstable regions meant the messenger risked death during times of warfare and unrest. Some cultures overcame these obstacles by using trained carrier pigeons to deliver messages over long distances. Histories report that ancient Chinese and Egyptians routinely used such trained birds to communicate.

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.