Johann Gutenberg

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Johann Gutenberg

The German inventor and printer Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1398-1468) was the inventor of movable-type mechanical printing in Europe.

Johann Gutenberg was born Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden, in Mainz. He was the third child of Freile zum Gensfleisch and his second wife, Else Wirick zum Gutenberg, whose name Johann adopted. Nothing is known of Gutenberg's studies or apprenticeship except that he learned the trade of a goldsmith while living in Mainz. About 1428 his family was exiled as a result of a revolt of the craftsmen against the noble class ruling the town, and in 1430 Gutenberg established himself in Strassburg, where he remained until 1444.

Gutenberg's experiments in printing began during his years in Strassburg. He was already familiar with the techniques of xylography, the process used to make books and other printed matter in Europe since the 14th century, and in the Far East much earlier. Then came the transition from xylography to typography, infinitely more practical for text printing since, instead of reproduction by means of wood carving, a small separate block (type) was used for each sign or character. The idea of movable type may have occurred to many people independently; Gutenberg may have worked in this field about 1436.

Business of Printing

There is no record of Gutenberg's whereabouts after 1444, but he appears again in Mainz according to a document dated October 1448. By 1450 he is known to have had a printing plant, for which he borrowed 800 guilders from the rich financier Johann Fust to enable him to manufacture certain tools and equipment. In December 1452 Gutenberg had to pay off his debt. Being unable to do so, he and Fust concluded a new agreement, under which Gutenberg received another similar loan and the financier became a partner in the enterprise. At that time Gutenberg already printed with movable type, thus making the idea conceived in Strassburg a reality in Mainz. A very valuable assistant to Gutenberg was his young employee and disciple Peter Schoeffer, who joined the firm in 1452. In spite of their successes, the relationship between Gutenberg and Fust took a bad turn, Fust sued Gutenberg for 2, 000 guilders, and in 1455 the partnership was dissolved. Fust won the court action and thereby acquired Gutenberg's materials and tools and went into partnership with Schoeffer.

Provenance of printed works of this period is therefore difficult, especially since there are no printed works surviving with Gutenberg's name on them. From that period dates the monumental and extremely beautiful 42-Line Bible, also called the Gutenberg Bible and Mazarin Bible, a work in big folio which is the crowning of many years of collaboration by the Gutenberg-Fust-Schoeffer team. However, when the first finished copies were turned out in early 1456, Gutenberg, undoubtedly the main creator of the work, no longer belonged to the partnership. Fust continued printing successfully with Gutenberg's equipment and also with machinery improved by Schoeffer. In the meantime Gutenberg, not at all favored by fortune in his various undertakings, had to start all over again. It is believed that the fruit of his work in these years is the 36-Line Bible and the famous Catholicon, a kind of encyclopedia. Again, as Gutenberg never put his name on any of his works, all ascriptions are hypothetical.

Later Years

In 1462 Mainz was sacked by the troops of Adolph II. Fust's printing office was set on fire and Gutenberg suffered losses as well, the same as other craftsmen. In consequence of this disaster many typographers left Mainz, and through their dispersion they also scattered their until now so jealously protected know-how. Gutenberg remained in Mainz, but he was again reduced to poverty, and he requested the archiepiscopal court for a sinecure, which he obtained on Jan. 17, 1465, including salary and privileges "for services rendered … and to be rendered in the future." Gutenberg's post at the court allowed him some economic relief, but nevertheless he carried on with his printing activities. The works from this final period in his life are unknown because of lack of identification.

Reportedly, Gutenberg became blind in the last months of his life, living partly in Mainz and partly in the neighboring village of Eltville. He died in St. Victor's parish in Mainz on Feb. 3, 1468, and was buried in the church of the Franciscan convent in that town. His physical appearance is unknown, though there are many imaginary depictions of his face and figure, including statues erected in Mainz and Strassburg. In 1900 the Gutenberg Museum was founded in Mainz with a library annexed to it to which all the objects and documents related to the invention of typography were entrusted.

Further Reading

Gutenberg's original documents are in Karl Schorbach, ed., The Gutenberg Documents, translated by Douglas C. McMurtrie (1941). There are many biographies of Gutenberg, but most of them contain inaccuracies. Those that are reliable include Laurence E. Tomlinson, Gutenberg and the Invention of Printing (1938); Pierce Butler, The Origin of Printing in Europe (1940), which is perhaps excessively critical; and Victor Scholderer, Johann Gutenberg:The Inventor of Printing (1963), probably the most accurate. Douglas C. McMurtrie, The Invention of Printing:A Bibliography (1942), is a guide to the literature on Gutenberg and on printing. □

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Johann Gutenberg

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