As everyone knows, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. Like much of what everyone knows, it’s not quite true. But no one else in the history of printing had nearly his influence. As Mark Twain expressed it,
The world concedes without hesitation or dispute that Gutenberg’s invention is incomparably the mightiest event that has ever happened in profane history. It created a new and wonderful earth, and along with it a new hell. It has added new details, new developments and new marvels to both in every year during five centuries. . .
Whatever the world is, today, good and bad together, that is what Gutenberg’s invention has made it: for from that source it has all come. But he has our homage; for what he said to the reproaching angel in his dream has come true, and the evil wrought through his mighty invention is immeasurably outbalanced by the good it has brought to the race of men.
Gutenberg wasn’t the first to use movable type or metal type, but he couldn’t have known about earlier uses. And he was apparently the first to see the possibilities of a wine press for printing. Most important, he was the first to see printing words on paper as a business.
The earliest developments in printing
Nearly all of the elements of modern printing started in Asia. They had no effect on society outside the nobility. Gutenberg surely knew nothing about them when he invented his printing press. And his changed the world.
The history of printing dates back to the fourth millennium BC, when the ancient Mesopotamians began to impress images on clay tablets. Credit goes to the Chinese for most of the earliest innovations in book printing.
- Wood block printing may date back to 594 BC, although the earliest extant examples are flowers printed on silk in three colors from the Han dynasty (before 220 BC)
- A Chinese court official invented paper around 105 AD.
- The earliest surviving printed book was produced in China in about 868 AD.
- The Chinese government began to issue the first government-issued banknotes in 1023, although merchants had issued them earlier.
Someone named Bi Sheng made printing them easier by making movable type from hardened clay. Wood and clay are too soft to use for mass printing. The earliest extant book printed with metal type is Korean.
A Korean invents movable metal type
The Goryeo dynasty that ruled Korea commissioned the printing of its version of Buddhist literature from woodblocks in 1087. Mongol invaders burned it in 1232, and the Goryeo promptly set about to recreate it. It also commissioned printing of an even longer book and assigned the task to Choe Yun-ui.
Carving enough woodblocks was impractical, so Choe turned to the Chinese method of movable type. Unlike Bi Sheng, he decided to cast metal type. He could print a page, rearrange the type, and print another. He finished his project in 1250.
The Mongol ruler in Beijing, Kublai Khan, certainly knew about Chinese and Korean printing technology. The Mongols in general liked to spread technology around their empire. A Turkic ethnic group called the Uyghurs adopted printing from movable type. Unlike the Chinese and Koreans, their language used an alphabet.
There appears to have been no westward expansion of printing from movable metal type from there. Gutenberg couldn’t have known anything about it. His life would have been much easier—and less remarkable—if he had.
Gutenberg’s early life
No one knows exactly when Gutenberg was born. A birthdate of June 24, 1400 was assigned in connection with the 500th Anniversary Gutenberg Festival (Mainz, 1900), but he may have been born as early as 1394 or as late as 1404.
At that time, people derived their surname from their dwelling rather than from their father. When they moved from one place to another, their legal name changed. Gutenberg lived as a young child and young adult at the Gutenberg house in Mainz, Germany. His father Friele Gensfleisch served as goldsmith for the bishop of Mainz.
Civil strife forced many craftsmen to leave Mainz in 1411. Gutenberg’s family may have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Altavilla in Latin). In that case, our Gutenberg may have been Johannes de Altavilla, who studied goldsmithing at the University of Erfurt. In any case, he worked with his father as apprentice and learned to read and write both German and Latin.
The earliest document associated with him is a letter he wrote in 1434, when he was living in Strasbourg with his mother’s relatives. Like many other metalsmiths of the time, Gutenberg learned woodblock printing and engraving. While in Strasbourg, he began to work on movable metal type, the innovation that made him famous.
Gutenberg’s printing press
After more than a century of woodcut printing on cloth, the first printing on paper in Europe appeared in 1423. The technique used ink made from lampblack and varnish or linseed oil. After printing, images were colored by hand.
Gutenberg made some key innovations.
First, he made his type from metal by pouring molten metal into molds. This technique enabled him to make multiple quantities of each letter more quickly than carving a single letter from wood. They lasted longer than wood blocks and produced easier-to-read print. Printers could arrange and rearrange these letters in a slug in order to use them to print several different pages.
Second, he used a screw-type winepress to apply even pressure to paper placed on inked metal type. It was the key to mass production of books and other printed matter. Like the 1423 printer, he used an oil-based ink instead of the water-based ink long used by scribes. After inking the letters, he placed a piece of paper over the tray and use the press to apply uniform pressure.
Gutenberg developed fonts for his moveable type printing press. They are the black-letter type styles known as Textualis and Schwabacher today. His typesetting practice enabled justified printing. That is, the right margin is as straight as the left.
Gutenberg’s financial failure
By 1448, Gutenberg had moved back to Mainz and by 1450 had begun to operate his first press. He began to make a profit by printing indulgences for the Roman Catholic church—the same practice that led to the Protestant Reformation in the next century. An indulgence written out by a professional scribe meant something more than simply filling out a preprinted form.
Still needing more money to finance refinements of his printing processes, Gutenberg borrowed money from Johann Fust and entered a partnership. By 1455, he had begun printing Bibles.
Unfortunately, Fust sued him in 1456. He claimed that Gutenberg had misused his money and demanded repayment with interest. Fust won his suit, confiscated Gutenberg’s printing press, and ultimately published about 200 copies of the Bible. 22 of them are still extant.
After that, details of Gutenberg’s life become hazy again. He continued to develop fonts and new printing techniques. Fust and his new partner apparently used them to publish a psalter.
Apparently, Gutenberg started a smaller printing operation in about 1459 in Bamberg. If so, he stopped printing after 1460, perhaps because of blindness. The archbishop of Mainz granted him the title of gentleman of the court in January 1465 in recognition of his achievements. The honor finally gave Gutenberg some financial stability. He died on February 3, 1468.
Design and production of the Gutenberg Bible
Many new technologies begin in primitive form and grow in refinement later. With Gutenberg Bibles, printing from movable metal type started out at a high level of artistry and aesthetics.
Gutenberg had as his model centuries of illuminated hand-copied Bibles, each its own work of art. An illuminated manuscript had not only the text but also fancy borders and painted illustrations that often included precious metals.
Scribes wrote on both paper and vellum. So Gutenberg and Fust printed some Bibles on each. The large font made them easy to read.
The earliest print runs had 40 lines of type per page. Each page went through the press twice, once with the black ink and once with red. Gutenberg and Fust soon abandoned these expensive practices. The number of lines per page increased first to 41 lines and ultimately to 42 lines to save paper.
Rubrication (application of red ink) was done by hand after printing with black ink. Customers could choose to have their Bibles decorated in color manually. Not all took advantage of that option.
Gutenberg Bibles cost about 30 florins, or about what the average clerk would earn in three years. As expensive as that sounds, it cost much less than an entire manuscript Bible.
About 200 copies of the Gutenberg Bible came off the press within three years. It seems slow now, but compared to producing that many Bibles by hand, it was lightning speed.
Economically, however, it made little sense to print that many. Finding 200 people who could read the Bible in Latin and wanted to own a copy was a more difficult task than the printing. No distribution network existed, which explains Gutenberg’s eventual bankruptcy.
An overview of printing after Gutenberg
Possibly more important to the history of printing than these technical innovations is the fact that Gutenberg was part of the middle class. All the Asian works described above were commissioned by the nobility for the nobility. Hardly anyone else even knew about them.
Gutenberg’s Bibles are the first mass-produced books. Mass production made it possible to print any information or opinion and put it in the hands of any literate person for a reasonable price.
So Gutenberg’s immediate successors developed profitable businesses by finding ways to turn out books and pamphlets as cheaply as possible.
Eventually, Venice became the international center for printing. There, a print run of 200 had not only a local market but the possibility of selling a few copies to the captain of every ship that left Venice’s port.
Venetian printers issued not only books but pamphlets with news of current events. Those ship captains easily sold them to printers in other port cities, who made and sold their own copies.
Taverns hired people to read these news stories out loud to illiterate locals. It became normal for people to check for news regularly and gave more people incentive to learn to read themselves.
The Italian Renaissance sparked renewed interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. One hand-copied book cost as much as a house. Few people could afford to own more than a few books. The University of Paris boasted the largest library in Europe. It owned 300 manuscripts.
But when Venetian printers started printing ancient literature, books became more affordable. Where only the wealthiest of people could afford a few books in manuscript, any prosperous merchant could easily acquire a larger number of printed books. The ancients became more widely known than ever.
In 1620, English philosopher Francis Bacon considered the printing press among three inventions that had changed the world forever.
Before the invention of printing, it took a very long time before anyone’s work became widely known. Scholars and scientists worked more or less in solitude. They knew some of the work of earlier generations, but not much about their own. Learning about the work of anyone who lived at a distance was difficult.
And so printed books not only made communication of new scientific ideas faster but possibly more accurate. Or at least more uniform than multiple manuscripts. Science began to develop rapidly once scientists could easily study what their contemporaries were up to.
Gutenberg’s invention also had a more subversive influence on society. The church had long served as the gatekeeper of information. When literature was available only in manuscript, it was easy for the church to quash movements that threatened its authority and destroy their literature.
But when Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, London printers were selling copies 17 days later.
In the following two decades, a third of all books sold in Germany were by Luther. When Luther translated the Bible, printers sold 5,000 copies in just two weeks. They eventually issued more than 430 editions.
Printing also opened the way for other outliers to gain an audience. The general public has always had a fascination with ideas the “establishment” wants to suppress.
Whenever the Spanish Inquisition or other authorities issues a list of banned books, printers outside their jurisdiction prepared major print runs. No king could be safe from widespread criticism. The Enlightenment-era emphasis on personal liberty would not have been possible if all books circulated only in manuscript.
7 ways the printing press changed the world / History.com. September 3, 2019
Biography of Johannes Gutenberg, German inventor of the printing press / Mary Bellis, ThoughtCo. April 27, 2020
The history of print from 1400 to 1499 / Prepressure [not dated]
The history of print until 1399 / Prepressure [not dated]
Johannes Gutenberg and Gutenberg Bible / Four Great Inventions. 2022
So, Gutenberg didn’t actually invent printing as we know it / M. Sophia Newman, Lit Hub. June 19, 2019