When Gutenberg unveiled his printing press, it sparked a new era of communications and idea sharing that made many people look differently at their lives and happiness. It led to major changes across Europe, movement of communities, and colonization of foreign lands, including America.
Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (
Gutenberg in a 16th century copper engraving
Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife, Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. It is assumed that he was baptized in the area close to his birthplace St. Christoph. According to some accounts Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely, he was involved in the cloth trade. Gutenberg’s year of birth is not precisely known but was most likely around 1398.
John Lienhard, technology historian, says “Most of Gutenberg’s early life is a mystery. His father worked with the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing.” This is supported by historian Heinrich Wallau, who adds, “In the 14th and 15th centuries his [descendants] claimed a hereditary position as …the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases.”
Wallau adds,”His surname was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors ‘zu Laden, zu Gutenberg’. The house of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century.”Patricians (aristocrats) in Mainz were often named after houses they owned. Around 1427, the name zu Gutenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented to have been used for the first time.
In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. As a result, the Gutenbergs are thought to have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. According to historian Heinrich Wallau, “All that is known of his youth is that he was not in Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strassburg (Strasbourg), where the family probably had connections.” He is assumed to have studied at theUniversity of Erfurt, where there is a record of the enrolment of a student called Johannes de Altavilla in 1418—Altavilla is the Latin form of Eltville am Rhein.
Nothing is now known of Gutenberg’s life for the next fifteen years, but in March 1434, a letter by him indicates that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some relatives on his mother’s side. He also appears to have been a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia. In 1437, there is evidence that he was instructing a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems, but where he had acquired this knowledge is unknown. In 1436/37 his name also comes up in court in connection with a broken promise of marriage to a woman from Strasbourg, Ennelin. Whether the marriage actually took place is not recorded. Following his father’s death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.
Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour.
Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen: in 1439 the city was planning to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but the event was delayed by one year due to a severe flood and the capital already spent could not be repaid. When the question of satisfying the investors came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a “secret”. It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him “like a ray of light”.
Until at least 1444 he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogast parish. It was in Strasbourg in 1440 that Gutenberg is said to have perfected and unveiled the secret of printing based on his research, mysteriously entitled Kunst und Aventur (art and enterprise). It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, quite possibly for a printing press or related paraphernalia. By this date, Gutenberg may have been familiar with intaglio printing; it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of Playing Cards.
“All that has been written to me about that marvelous man seen at Frankfurt [sic] is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.”
By 1450, the press was in operation, and a Germanpoem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylenderJohann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schöffer, who became Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Schöffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and is believed to have designed some of the first typefaces.
Gutenberg’s workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profit-making enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454–55.
In 1455 Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 copies were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.
Some time in 1456, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust, and Fust demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of misusing the funds. Meanwhile the expenses of the Bible project had proliferated, and Gutenberg’s debt now exceeded 20,000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop’s court. A November 1455 legal document records that there was a partnership for a “project of the books,” the funds for which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. The court decided in favor of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.
Thus Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt, but it appears he retained (or re-started) a small printing shop, and participated in the printing of a Bible in the town of Bambergaround 1459, for which he seems at least to have supplied the type. But since his printed books never carry his name or a date, it is difficult to be certain, and there is consequently a considerable scholarly debate on this subject. It is also possible that the large Catholicon dictionary, 300 copies of 754 pages, printed in Mainz in 1460, may have been executed in his workshop.
Meanwhile, the Fust–Schöffer shop was the first in Europe to bring out a book with the printer’s name and date, the Mainz Psalter of August 1457, and while proudly proclaiming the mechanical process by which it had been produced, it made no mention of Gutenberg.
In 1462, during a conflict between two archbishops, Mainz was sacked by archbishop Adolph von Nassau, and Gutenberg was exiled. An old man by now, he moved to Eltvillewhere he may have initiated and supervised a new printing press belonging to the brothers Bechtermünze.
In January 1465, Gutenberg’s achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by von Nassau. This honor included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2,180 litres of grain and 2,000 litres of wine tax-free. It is believed he may have moved back to Mainz around this time, but this is not certain.
Gutenberg died in 1468 and was buried in the Franciscan church at Mainz, his contributions largely unknown. This church and the cemetery were later destroyed, and Gutenberg’s grave is now lost.
In 1504, he was mentioned as the inventor of typography in a book by Professor Ivo Wittig. It was not until 1567 that the first portrait of Gutenberg, almost certainly an imaginary reconstruction, appeared in Heinrich Pantaleon’s biography of famous Germans.
Between 1450 and 1455, Gutenberg printed several texts, some of which remain unidentified; his texts did not bear the printer’s name or date, so attribution is possible only from typographical evidence and external references. Certainly several church documents including a papal letter and two indulgences were printed, one of which was issued in Mainz. Realizing the value of printing in quantity, seven editions in two styles were ordered, resulting in several thousand copies being printed. Some printed editions ofArs Minor, a schoolbook on Latin grammar by Aelius Donatus may have been printed by Gutenberg; these have been dated either 1451–52 or 1455.
In 1455, Gutenberg completed copies of a beautifully executed folio Bible (Biblia Sacra), with 42 lines on each page. Copies sold for 30 florins each, which was roughly three years’ wages for an average clerk. Nonetheless, it was significantly cheaper than a manuscript Bible that could take a single scribe over a year to prepare. After printing, some copies were rubricated or hand-illuminated in the same elegant way as manuscript Bibles from the same period.
An undated 36-line edition of the Bible was printed, probably in Bamberg in 1458-1460, possibly by Gutenberg. A large part of it was shown to have been set from a copy of Gutenberg’s Bible, thus disproving earlier speculation that it may have been the earlier of the two.
Printing method with moveable type
Movable metal type, and composing stick, descended from Gutenberg’s press.
European output of books printed with movable types from Gutenberg to 1800
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which sparked off the Reformation in a print edition from 1522. Within the span of only two years, Luther’s tracts were distributed in 300,000 printed copies throughout Germany and Europe.
Gutenberg’s early printing process, and what tests he may have made with movable type, are not known in great detail. His later Bibles were printed in such a way as to have required large quantities of type, some estimates suggesting as many as 100,000 individual sorts. Setting each page would take, perhaps, half a day, and considering all the work in loading the press, inking the type, pulling the impressions, hanging up the sheets, distributing the type, etc., it is thought that the Gutenberg–Fust shop might have employed as many as 25 craftsmen.
Gutenberg’s technique of making movable type remains unclear. In the following decades, punches and copper matrices became standardized in the rapidly disseminating printing presses across Europe. Whether Gutenberg used this sophisticated technique or a somewhat primitive version has been the subject of considerable debate.
In the standard process of making type, a hard metal punch (made by punchcutting, with the letter carved back to front) is hammered into a softer copper bar, creating a matrix. This is then placed into a hand-held mould and a piece of type, or “sort”, is cast by filling the mould with molten type-metal; this cools almost at once, and the resulting piece of type can be removed from the mould. The matrix can be reused to create hundreds, or thousands, of identical sorts so that the same character appearing anywhere within the book will appear very uniform, giving rise, over time, to the development of distinct styles of typefaces or fonts. After casting, the sorts are arranged into type-cases, and used to make up pages which are inked and printed, a procedure which can be repeated hundreds, or thousands, of times. The sorts can be reused in any combination, earning the process the name of “movable type”. (For details, see Typography.)
The invention of the making of types with punch, matrix and mold has been widely attributed to Gutenberg. However, recent evidence suggests that Gutenberg’s process was somewhat different. If he used the punch and matrix approach, all his letters should have been nearly identical, with some variations due to miscasting and inking. However, the type used in Gutenberg’s earliest work shows other variations.
In 2001, the physicist Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Princeton librarian Paul Needham, used digital scans of a Papal bull in the Scheide Library, Princeton, to carefully compare the same letters (types) appearing in different parts of the printed text. The irregularities in Gutenberg’s type, particularly in simple characters such as the hyphen, suggested that the variations could not have come from either ink smear or from wear and damage on the pieces of metal on the types themselves. While some identical types are clearly used on other pages, other variations, subjected to detailed image analysis, suggested that they could not have been produced from the same matrix. Transmitted light pictures of the page also appeared to reveal substructures in the type that could not arise from traditional punchcutting techniques. They hypothesized that the method may have involved impressing simple shapes to create alphabets in “cuneiform” style in a matrix made of some soft material, perhaps sand. Casting the type would destroy the mould, and the matrix would need to be recreated to make each additional sort. This could explain the variations in the type, as well as the substructures observed in the printed images.
Thus, they feel that “the decisive factor for the birth of typography”, the use of reusable moulds for casting type, might have been a more progressive process than was previously thought. They suggest that the additional step of using the punch to create a mould that could be reused many times was not taken until twenty years later, in the 1470s. Others have not accepted some or all of their suggestions, and have interpreted the evidence in other ways, and the truth of the matter remains very uncertain.
A 1568 history by Hadrianus Junius of Holland claims that the basic idea of the movable type came to Gutenberg from Laurens Janszoon Coster via Fust, who was apprenticed to Coster in the 1430s and may have brought some of his equipment from Haarlemto Mainz. While Coster appears to have experimented with moulds and castable metal type, there is no evidence that he had actually printed anything with this technology. He was an inventor and a goldsmith. However, there is one indirect supporter of the claim that Coster might be the inventor. The author of the Cologne Chronicle of 1499 quotes Ulrich Zell, the first printer of Cologne, that printing was performed in Mainz in 1450, but that some type of printing of lower quality had previously occurred in the Netherlands. However, the chronicle does not mention the name of Coster, while it actually credits Gutenberg as the “first inventor of printing” in the very same passage (fol. 312). The first securely dated book by Dutch printers is from 1471, and the Coster connection is today regarded as a mere legend.
The 19th century printer and typefounder Fournier Le Jeune suggested that Gutenberg might not have been using type cast with a reusable matrix, but possibly wooden types that were carved individually. A similar suggestion was made by Nash in 2004. This remains possible, albeit entirely unproven.
It has also been questioned whether Gutenberg used movable types at all. In 2004, Italian professor Bruno Fabbiani claimed that examination of the 42-line Bible revealed an overlapping of letters, suggesting that Gutenberg did not in fact use movable type (individual cast characters) but rather used whole plates made from a system somewhat like a modern typewriter, whereby the letters were stamped successively into the plate and then printed. However, most specialists regard the occasional overlapping of type as caused by paper movement over pieces of type of slightly unequal height.
“What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage, … for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.”
Although Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, the printing technologies spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe much faster than before. It fed the growing Renaissance, and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing, it was a major catalyst for the later scientific revolution.
The capital of printing in Europe shifted to Venice, where visionary printers like Aldus Manutius ensured widespread availability of the major Greek and Latin texts. The claims of an Italian origin for movable type have also focused on this rapid rise of Italy in movable-type printing. This may perhaps be explained by the prior eminence of Italy in the paper and printing trade. Additionally, Italy’s economy was growing rapidly at the time, facilitating the spread of literacy. Christopher Columbus had a geographical book (printed by movable types) bought by his father. That book is in a Spanish museum. Finally, the city of Mainz was sacked in 1462, driving many (including a number of printers and punch cutters) into exile.
Printing was also a factor in the Reformation. Martin Luther‘s 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely; subsequently he issuedbroadsheets outlining his anti-indulgences position (certificates of indulgences were one of the first items Gutenberg had printed). The broadsheet contributed to development of the newspaper.
In 1961 the Canadian philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan entitled his pioneering study in the fields of print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.
Regarded as one of the most influential people in human history, Gutenberg remains a towering figure in the popular image. In 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg the No. 1 most influential person of the second millennium on their “Biographies of the Millennium” countdown. In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium.