Inventor in History: Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, publisher, and inventor.  His invention of the mechanical movable type printing started the Printing Revolution in Europe, which is widely viewed as the most important event of the modern period.

The earliest known moveable type printing system was made with porcelain by Bi Sheng in China around 1040, during the Song Dynasty.  But it wasn’t until two hundred years later during the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea that the first metal moveable type printing system was developed. This led to the Jikji, the earliest known movable metal type printed book in 1377.  Neither of these movable type systems was widely used, due to the enormous amount of labor involved to produce the full Chinese character set (numbering in the thousands) and block printing remained the most widely used printing method.

Left: Jikji, Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Son Masters, Korea 1377; Right: Woodcut Print dated 1423 of St. Christopher from Buxheim on the Upper Rhine

Block-printed books with both text and images, emerged in Europe in the mid-15th century, as a cheap alternative to the hand-copied manuscript. These books consisted largely of illustrations with short captions and each page of text had to be carved into a block of wood and then pressed onto paper.  Although this labor-intensive process was faster than handwriting each page, the books were very expensive and only the rich could afford them.

But, even with the addition of block books, the hand written manuscript on the smooth and lustrous parchment, made from animal skin, was the preferred book medium for artists and literati. In fact, a single parchment bible required 300 sheepskins! In Europe, paper was not widely used for books until the about 1440, around the same time Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type printing.

Left: 16th century copper engraving of Johannes Gutenberg; Right: Gutenberg Press

Johannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, publisher, and inventor.  His invention of the mechanical movable type printing started the Printing Revolution in Europe, which is widely viewed as the most important event of the modern period.

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, the youngest son of an upper-class family.  Gutenberg’s exact birth date is not known, but is likely between 1398-1400. Gutenberg’s father, Friele Gensfleisch, worked for the ecclesiastic mint, thus it is likely Gutenberg grew up learning the goldsmith trade. As the son of a patrician, it is believed he also attended grammar school and continued his studies at the University of Erfurt, since the occupations he later pursued demanded a comprehensive education, especially a sound knowledge of Latin.

Very little is known about Gutenberg’s early life and much remains a mystery.  In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against patricians and 100+ families were forced to leave including Gutenberg.  Nothing is known of his life for the following fifteen years, until 1434 when he sent a letter indicating that he was living in Strasbourg and was a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia.  In 1440 while still in Strasbourg, Gutenberg unveiled the secret of his printing press system, which he titled Kunst und Aventur (art and enterprise).  In 1448 he returned to Mainz, where he continued his work and within two years his new printing press system was in operation.

Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum's replica Gutenberg Press

To develop his new printing process, Gutenberg invented a process for mass-producing movable type, oil based ink, and the use of a wooden printing press. It was the combination of all these elements, which generated a practical system for mass book production.

The specifics of Gutenberg’s technique for making movable type remains unclear, however his goals were technically and aesthetically difficult.  His movable type were mechanical reproductions of the characters used in manuscripts, the beautiful calligraphy of the time. To accomplish this, Gutenberg prepared two different forms of each letter, the normal separated form and the linked form that could be joined closely to the next type to avoid gaps. It is believe that to create the individual letters, he engraved the letter into hard steel and then “punched” it into a softer metal to create a mold to produce multiples of each type, or “sort”.  A casting metal (an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony) was poured into the mold to produce the individual sorts that could be arranged into a galley (a wooden tray) to make up the pages. The type surface was then inked with leather covered ink balls and paper carefully placed on top by hand.  It then slid under a padded surface with pressure applied from above by a large threaded screw press. A number of additions were made to the screw style press to make it suitable for printing and ensure even pressure along the entire page. Gutenberg’s printing process needed a slightly sticky and deeper black ink to produce a good print. Unlike the water-based ink for wood block printing, Gutenberg combined linseed oil, resin, and soot for his ink.

Shortly after Gutenberg’s print workshop was in full operation, he formed a partnership with wealthy burgher, Johann Fust, borrowing 8000 guilders to continue printing texts, possibly Latin grammars, German poetry, and indulgences for the church.  It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but he convinced Fust for a loan of an additional 8000 guilders for the project. The 42-line Bible is thought to be Gutenberg’s greatest printed accomplishment.  The 2-volume bible with a total of 1,282 pages was created with the help of a 20-person staff.  For this bible, he cast 290 different letters and symbols. In 1455, Gutenberg completed printing 180 copies (150 on paper and 30 on parchment) of his 42-line Bible; copies sold for 30 florins each, approximately three years’ wage for an average clerk.

In 1456, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust; Fust demanded payment for his loans and accused Gutenberg of misusing the funds.  Fust sued at the archbishop’s court and the court decided in favor of Fust, giving him control over Gutenberg’s print workshop and half of all printed Bibles. This essentially bankrupt Gutenberg, but he opened a second print workshop only a few years later and continued to print in Mainz.

It wasn’t until 1465 that Gutenberg’s accomplishments were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by archbishop Adolph von Nassau.  This honor provided him with a stipend, clothing, and food during his later years until his death in 1468.

Although Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, his printing technology spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe. His invention played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution (one of the reasons an IV Lab building is named after him).

The Gutenberg press with its moveable type-printing drove down the price of books and other printed materials and made them available for the masses.  It remained the standard form of printing text until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books until the second half of the 20th century, under the more familiar name, letterpress printing.