Biography of Johannes Gutenberg, Inventor of the Printing Press

Engraving of publisher and printer Johannes Gutenberg
Grafissimo / Getty Images

Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398–February 3, 1468) was the inventor of a movable-type printing press, based on a Rhenish wine press and using ink that clung to the metal type and produced color fonts. His technological innovations, which included punch-cutting, matrix-fitting, type-casting, composing, and printing, was used nearly unchanged for three centuries after his death. 

Fast Facts: Johannes Gutenberg

  • Known For: Invention of several technologies surrounding the printing press
  • Born: c. 1394–1404 in Mainz, Germany
  • Parents: Friele Gensfleisch and Else Wirich
  • Died: February 3, 1468 in Mainz, Germany
  • Education: Apprentice to a goldsmith, possibly enrolled at the University of Erfurt
  • Published Works: 42-Line Bible ("The Gutenberg Bible"), a Book of Psalter, and the "Sibyl's Prophecy"
  • Spouse(s): None known
  • Children: None known

Early Life

Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was born between 1394 and 1404 in Mainz, in what is today Germany. An "official birthday" of June 24, 1400, was chosen at the time of a 500th Anniversary Festival held in Mainz in 1900, but that is symbolic. What information about his early life is limited to court documents—and sources are limited in usefulness because his surname, like many people of the time, was a reference to the building or property he lived in, and so changed according to his residence. As a young child and adult, he lived in the Gutenberg house in Mainz.

Johannes was the second of three children of Friele Gensfleisch and Else Wirich. Else Wirich was the daughter of a shopkeeper, whose family had once been of the noble classes. Friele Gensfleisch was a member of the aristocracy and worked in the ecclesiastical mint, the place that supplied gold and other metals for coins, minted the coins, changed the species of coins when needed, and testified in forgery cases.

Education

Johannes worked with his father in the mint, which is where he learned and may have been a goldsmith's apprentice. As a young man, he may have also worked in the clothing trade in Mainz until 1411, when a craftsman's revolt against the noble classes occurred, and Johann and his family were forced to flee Mainz. They may have gone to Eltville am Rhein, where his mother had an inherited estate. In 1418, a student named Johannes de Altavilla enrolled at the University of Erfurt—Altavilla is the Latin form of Eltville am Rhein. By 1434, they were in Strasbourg. Wherever he was educated, Johannes learned reading and writing in German and Latin, the language of scholars and churchmen.

Books have been around for nearly 3,000 years, but until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-1400s they were rare and hard to produce. Text and illustrations were done by hand, a very time-consuming process, and only the wealthy and educated could afford them. But within a few decades of Gutenberg's innovation, printing presses were operating in England, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and elsewhere. More presses meant more (and cheaper) books, allowing literacy to flourish across Europe. 

Books Before Gutenberg

Close up of piece of Diamond Sutra scroll
British Library / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

Although historians can't pinpoint when the first book was created, the oldest known book in existence was printed in China in 868 CE. Called "The Diamond Sutra," it was a copy of a sacred Buddhist text, in a 17-foot-long scroll printed with wooden blocks. It was commissioned by a man named Wang Jie to honor his parents, according to an inscription on the scroll, though little else is known about who Wang was or who created the scroll. Today, it is in the collection of the British Museum in London.

By 932 CE, Chinese printers regularly were using carved wooden blocks to print scrolls. But these wooden blocks wore out quickly, and a new block had to be carved for each character, word, or image that was used. The next revolution in printing occurred in 1041 when Chinese printers began using movable type, individual characters made of clay that could be chained together to form words and sentences.

Printing Comes to Europe

By the early 1400s, European metalsmiths also had adopted wood-block printing and engraving. One of those metalsmiths was Johannes Gutenberg, who began experimenting with printing work during his exile in Strasbourg—at the time, there were metalsmiths in Avignon, Bruges, and Bologna who were also experimenting with presses. By 1438, Gutenberg had begun experimenting with printing techniques using metal movable type and had secured funding from a wealthy businessman named Andreas Dritzehn; between 1444 and 1448 he returned to Mainz.

Gutenberg's printing press
An illustration of Gutenberg's printing press. ilbusca / Getty Images

It is unclear when Gutenberg began publishing with his metal type, but by 1450 he had made sufficient progress to seek additional funds from another investor, Johannes Fust. Using a modified wine press, Gutenberg created his printing press. The ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of movable handset block letters held within a wooden form, and the form was then pressed against a sheet of paper.

Gutenberg's Bible

A copy of Gutenberg's Bible
A copy of Gutenberg's Bible. NYC Wanderer / Kevin Eng / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

By 1452, Gutenberg entered into a business partnership with Fust in order to continue funding his printing experiments. Gutenberg continued to refine his printing process and by 1455 had printed several copies of the Bible. Consisting of three volumes of text in Latin, Gutenberg's Bibles had 42 lines of type per page with color illustrations.

But Gutenberg didn't enjoy his innovation for long. Fust sued him for repayment, something Gutenberg was unable to do, and Fust seized the press as collateral. The bulk of Gutenberg's presses and types went to Peter Schöffer of Gernsheim, an employee and later son-in-law of Fust. Fust continued printing the Bibles, eventually publishing about 200 copies, of which only 22 exist today.

In addition to the 42-Line Bible, Gutenberg is credited by some historians with a Book of Psalter, published by Fust and Schöffer but using fonts and innovative techniques generally attributed to Gutenberg. The oldest surviving manuscript from the early Gutenburg press is that of a fragment of the poem "The Sibyl's Prophecy," the German text of which was made using Gutenberg's earliest typeface between 1452–1453. The page, which includes a planetary table for astrologers, was found in the late 19th century and donated to the Gutenberg museum in 1903.

Legacy and Death

Few details are known about Gutenberg's life after the lawsuit. According to some historians, Gutenberg continued to work with Fust, while other scholars say Fust drove Gutenberg out of business. After 1460, he seems to have abandoned printing entirely, perhaps as a result of blindness. He survived on a pension from the archbishop of Mainz known as a "Hoffman," a gentleman of the court.

Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468, and was buried in a Franciscan church in Eltville, Germany that was torn down in 1742.

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