Johannes Gutenberg

views updated

Johannes Gutenberg


German Inventor, Craftsman, and Printer

Johannes Gutenberg was a German craftsman whose invention of the moveable type printing process allowed for the first mass production of books, letters, and other written documents. His technique would survive virtually intact until the twentieth century.

Little is known of Gutenberg's early years; only that he was born in Mainz, the son of a wealthy aristocrat named Friele Gänsfleisch, whose lineage dates back to the thirteenth century. Gutenberg's last name was derived from the name of his father's ancestral home, zu Laden, zu Gutenberg. A craftsman by trade, he was exiled from Mainz during a feud between the patricians and tradesmen of the city around 1430. Gutenberg moved to Strassburg (now Strasbourg, France), and joined the goldsmith's guild. There, he also taught various crafts, including gem polishing, the manufacture of looking glasses, and the art of printing.

At the time, printed materials were reproduced via a lengthy process, hand written by scribes one at a time or printed page by page with the use of a hand carved wooden block. Gutenberg had the idea to use the tools of metalworking, such as casting, punch-cutting, and stamping, to mass-produce books. He created a font consisting of 300 individually cast characters, which replicated the ornate scroll of handwritten letters. These characters were cut onto small stem rods called patrices, and the dies made were impressed upon a soft metal, such as copper.

Gutenberg blended lead, antimony, and tin to make a variable-width mold that would accommodate his many fonts. Printers could then mix-and-match the various letters to create multiple pages. Some of Gutenberg's earliest printed works included "Poem of the Last Judgment" and the "Calendar for 1448."

In 1450, he returned to Mainz to continue his work on the press. He convinced wealthy financier Johann Fust to lend him 800 guilders—a large sum of money at the time—with which to complete his invention. Fust later added another 800 guilders to his investment and became a full partner in the endeavor.

The oldest surviving printed work in the Western world, The Bible of 42 lines, now known as the Gutenberg Bible, was completed in 1456. Shortly before the Bible was finished, Fust initiated a lawsuit against his debtor for failure to repay the loan plus interest, and eventually gained control of Gutenberg's shop and machinery. It was he who completed printing of the Bible. Fust later carried on the inventor's work with the assistance of his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer.

Moveable-type printing presses soon became abundant throughout Europe. Many of the earliest printers learned their skill in Mainz, taught by Gutenberg himself. In the fifteenth century, there were as many as 1,000 printers actively working, most of them of German origin. By 1500 an estimated 30,000 titles had been published.

In addition to the Bible, a number of other printings were attributed to Gutenberg, including a Türkenkalender, which was a warning against Turkish invasion, printed in 1454, and the Catholicon of Johannes de Janua, a more than 700-page encyclopedia.

In January 1465 Gutenberg took a position as courtier to the Archbishop of Mainz, who provided him with a food and clothing stipend that carried him through his final years. Gutenberg passed away in his hometown in 1468.

Gutenberg's printing method is now considered among the greatest inventions of all time. Whereas reading was once only available to the elite classes, with the advent of the press, books became widely available to the general public. The printing press allowed literacy to flourish, contributed to the rapid development of science, and made knowledge and education available to all.


About this article

Johannes Gutenberg

Updated About content Print Article