Gutenberg, Johann ca. 1398–1468 German Inventor

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Gutenberg, Johann
ca. 1398–1468
German inventor

Johann Gutenberg of Germany invented a printing press that used movable type to print books. His invention enabled printers to produce hundreds and thousands of accurate copies of books far more efficiently and cheaply than in the past, greatly aiding the spread of information. The printing press had such a great impact on cultural and commercial development that some scholars see it as a turning point in the history of Western civilization.

Gutenberg spent most of his life in Mainz, Germany, where he borrowed large sums of money to set up his print shop and create his press. He developed a method of producing movable type that was suitable for printed books. His technique involved creating a separate metal piece for each letter of the alphabet. Many of the metals Gutenberg employed—including tin and lead—are still in use today. He also developed his ink, a mixture of oil, varnish, and finely ground black powder that worked well on the calfskin and paper used in printing at the time.

Gutenberg's print shop in Mainz may have held up to six printing presses. It was there that he printed his first book, a Latin version of the Bible. During 1454 and 1455 he printed more than 200 copies of this Bible, which contained 42 lines of print on each page. Gutenberg's Bibles are of extremely high quality. The type is sharp and clear and the right-hand margins are straight. Surprisingly, almost a quarter of the volumes in Gutenberg's original printing still exist. Many of these copies are illuminated* with capital letters and headings added by hand in spaces the printer left for that purpose. The cost of printing these Bibles exceeded the profits, and by the time Gutenberg printed the last of them it was clear he would not have enough money to pay off his loans. He handed over his shop in place of payment and produced few other works.

At first, people used Gutenberg's invention mainly to reproduce existing texts. In the early 1500s, however, the printing of original works became common. As printing became more widely available, the handwritten manuscript and the oral tradition of the Middle Ages shifted to the world of the printed page.

(See alsoBible; Books and Manuscripts; Printing and Publishing. )

* illuminated

having pages ornamented with hand-painted color decorations and illustrations

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Gutenberg, Johann ca. 1398–1468 German Inventor

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