Gutenberg, Moveable Type and the Printing Press

One of the greatest and most important inventions in the world was made public in 1450: Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press.

The Renaissance’s Great Deliverer

During the course of the Renaissance, a movement which began in Italian art and letters and spread to influence the culture of all Europe, one invention became an enabling factor: the moveable type printing press. Books which had taken scribes hours to reproduce by hand, or in extremely expensive forms of early printing, could suddenly be reproduced far quicker and cheaper, speeding and cheapening the transfer of information.
This press inaugurated a new age of literacy, and began the process of bringing knowledge to all.

Early Printing from the East

Printed books date from at least 868 CE in China, and may stretch back even further, but they had limits. In the thirteenth century goods from China bought into Europe papers which had been ‘block’ printed: the image of words you wanted were carved into wooden blocks, rolled with ink and stamped onto paper. The west began to use this idea, but it was expensive in money and time, as the blocks didn’t last long and blocks were needed for each word, even page. However, the demand for a better system which would cut the costs caused Europeans to look at ways to do so. Korea first used moveable metal type in 1234, but Europe’s source would be a man named Gutenberg.

Johannes Gutenberg and his Press

We don’t know when Johannes Gutenberg was born – the traditional date of June 24th 1400 was guessed at in the late nineteenth century so a celebration could be fixed - but he was a member of the Mainz patricians in south Germany.
He wasn’t rich, and not high ranking, and he worked as a goldsmith and gem cutter, but had to flee Mainz during a conflict between the guilds and the city (we’re not sure if he was heavily involved) which led him to live in Strasbourg for ten years. In 1434 he extracted a backlog of annuities from Mainz by having a visiting dignitary locked in a debtor’s prison.

By 1438 several printers were working on new systems – possibly including Procopius Waldvogel, and the story of Laurens Coster’s earlier invention is false - but it was in that year that Gutenberg was forced to reveal his secret plans to a few: people who had loaned him money demanded that he reveal the invention, and a contract was written up for Gutenberg and three partners: Hans Riffe, Andreas Dritzehn, and Andreas Heilmann.

Interestingly, the death of each partner would not pass their share down to heirs; instead those were to be given compensation. When one died that year some details were revealed to the world – as brothers of the deceased argued over getting in on the secret - and it seemed to be to do with printing, but Gutenberg maintained secrecy. At an early stage Gutenberg had been working on mass producing mirrors for pilgrims, and at some point he was working on a printing press: the relationship and chronology between the two is uncertain and unclear.

After a four year period when he left Strasburg, and where we don’t know where he went, Gutenberg was back in Mainz, borrowing money from Johann Fust to finish his project. More money was advanced in 1452, and in 1455 Fust sued Gutenberg - who was after perfection rather than production - for all the money back. Whether this ruined Gutenberg or left him free is debated. But by then he had created his system, the one that would transform the world. He thought of using small blocks for individual letters, in a press inspired by rural wine making, and with a new ink. He then created a metal alloy that combined two factors: it worked well in the press and could be cast easily in shape.

The system was simple: you made a metal alphabet (rather than blocks for each word), and as long as each piece remained sharp- and Gutenberg invented a system to make the pieces swiftly and cheaply - you could arrange them in the phrases you wanted, print, and then reuse the same letters a different way, a page at a time. You could, in practice, print anything and often. We believe the first printed text was the Ars Grammatica, a Latin primer used by students and often known after its author as the Aelius Donatus. Printed indulgences followed.

The Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg decided to promote his press with a special project and, borrowing money to do so, began to print two hundred, two volume, copies of the bible. They were finished by 1455 and sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s worth mentioning that the cost of each was still several years pay for the average inhabitant of Frankfurt, but the effect was clear: printing had arrived. At this point Gutenberg was printing, and Fust – who had been awarded some of Gutenberg’s assets when he’d sued for his money back – had set up his own press with an assistant of Gutenbergs, Furst’s adopted son Peter Schoffer.

The Spread and Importance of the Press

Gutenberg wished to keep his invention a secret and capitalize on it, but the idea spread rapidly, and by 1500 most cities in Europe had presses putting out an ever growing body of material: millions of books. As everyone had hoped this industry vastly increased the output of readable material, and did start to cut costs, bringing knowledge, and the ability to study, to growing numbers of people (shortly around the world). The Reformation owed a lot to print spreading ideas. Now experts and academics – Renaissance Humanists - could study texts knowing they were the same: previously a scribe could make errors and no two books could be guaranteed the same, whereas each run of printed works was identical. Gutenberg was probably forced to flee Mainz in a dispute between rival archbishops, for whom he’d printed the wrong side, and after this expulsion he settled in Eltville, where he started again; this disruption spread other printers across Germany. Gutenberg was eventually awarded a pension and exonerated by the by the Archbishop of Mainz, and died in 1468.