Biography of Johannes Gutenberg, German Inventor of the Printing Press

Portrait of Johannes Gutenberg
Portrait of Johannes Gutenberg, early 17th cen. Found in the collection of the Keio University Library. Artist: Anonymous.

 Heritage Images / Getty Images

Johannes Gutenberg (born Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg; circa 1400—February 3, 1468) was a German blacksmith and inventor who developed the world’s first mechanical moveable type printing press. Regarded as a milestone in modern human history, the printing press played a key role in the advancement of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment. Making the knowledge contained in books and literature affordable and readily available for the first time, Gutenberg’s press was used to create one of the Western world’s first and most famous books, the Gutenberg Bible, also known as the “42-Line Bible.”

Fast Facts: Johannes Gutenberg

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

Early Life

Johannes Gutenberg was born between 1394 and 1404 in the German city of Mainz. An "official birthday" of June 24, 1400, was chosen at the time of the 500th Anniversary Gutenberg Festival held in Mainz in 1900, but the date is purely symbolic. Johannes was the second of three children of patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden and his second wife, Else Wyrich, the daughter of a shopkeeper, whose family had once been members of the German noble classes. According to some historians, Friele Gensfleisch was a member of the aristocracy and worked as a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz in the Catholic ecclesiastical mint.

Like his exact date of birth, few details of Gutenberg’s early life and education are known with and degree of certainty. It was common at the time for a person’s surname to be taken from the house or property where they lived rather than their father. As a result, a person’s legal surname as reflected in court documents could actually change over time as they moved about. It is known that as a young child and adult, Johannes lived in the Gutenberg house in Mainz.

Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg (around 1397-1468), German inventor of the printing with moveable metal types. Oil on Canvas, around 1750. Imagno / Getty Images

In 1411, an uprising by craftsmen against aristocrats in Mainz forced more than a hundred families like Guttenberg’s to leave. It is believed that Gutenberg moved with his family to Eltville am Rhein (Altavilla), Germany, where they lived on an estate inherited by his mother. According to historian Heinrich Wallau, Gutenberg may have studied goldsmithing at the University of Erfurt, where records show the enrolment of a student named Johannes de Altavilla in 1418—Altavilla being the Latin form of Eltville am Rhein, Gutenberg’s home at the time. It is also known that young Gutenberg had worked with his father in the ecclesiastical mint, perhaps as a goldsmith’s apprentice. Wherever he received his formal education, Gutenberg learned to read and write in both German and Latin, the language of scholars and churchmen.

For the next 15 years, Gutenberg’s life remained a mystery, until a letter written by him in March 1434 indicated that he was living with his mother’s relatives in Strasbourg, Germany, perhaps working as a goldsmith for the town’s militia. While Gutenberg was never known to have married or fathered children, court records from 1436 and 1437 indicate that he may have broken a promise to marry a Strasbourg woman named Ennelin. No more is known of the relationship.

Gutenberg’s Printing Press

Like many other details of his life, few details surrounding Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press are known with certainty. By the early 1400s, European metalsmiths had mastered woodblock printing and engraving. One of those metalsmiths was Gutenberg, who began experimenting with printing during his exile in Strasbourg. At the same time, metalsmiths in France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy were also experimenting with printing presses.

Gutenberg Printing Press
Engraving of the first printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg. Authenticated News / Getty Images

It is believed that in 1439, Gutenberg became involved in an ill-fated business venture of making polished metal mirrors for sale to pilgrims coming to a festival in the German town of Aachen to view its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne. The mirrors were believed to capture the otherwise invisible “holy light” given off by religious relics. When the festival was delayed for over a year by floods, the money already spent to make the mirrors could not be repaid. To satisfy the investors, Gutenberg is believed to have promised to tell them a “secret” that would make them rich. Many historians think Gutenberg’s secret was his idea of a printing press—presumably based on a winepress—using movable metal type.

In 1440, while still living in Strasbourg, Gutenberg is believed to have revealed his printing press secret in a book oddly titled "Aventur und Kunst"—Enterprise and Art. It is not known whether he had actually attempted or succeeded in printing from movable type at the time. By 1448, Gutenberg had moved back to Mainz, where with the help of a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, he began assembling a working printing press. By 1450, Gutenberg’s first press was in operation.

Gutenberg Press
German printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg with his partner Johann Fust, a merchant, with the first proof from moveable types on the press they set up together, circa 1455. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

To get his new printing business off the ground, Gutenberg borrowed 800 guilders from a wealthy moneylender named Johann Fust. One of the first profitable projects undertaken by Gutenberg’s new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the Catholic church—instructions for reducing the amount of penance one must do in order to be forgiven for various sins.

The Gutenberg Bible

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, the Gutenberg Bible featured 42 lines of type per page with color illustrations.

First page of the 42-line bible, the Gutenberg Bible, printed at Mainz
First page of the 42-line bible, the Gutenberg Bible, printed at Mainz. Mansell / Contributor / Getty Images

Gutenberg’s Bibles were limited to only 42 lines per page by the size of the font, which while large, also made the text extremely easy to read. This ease of readability proved especially popular among the church clergy. In a letter written in March 1455, the future Pope Pius II recommended Gutenberg’s Bibles to Cardinal Carvajal, stating, “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.”

Unfortunately, Gutenberg didn't get to enjoy his innovation for long. In 1456, his financial backer and partner Johann Fust accused Gutenberg of misusing the money he had loaned him in 1450 and demanded repayment. At 6% interest, the 1,600 guilders Gutenberg had borrowed now amounted to 2,026 guilders. When Gutenberg refused or was unable to repay the loan, Fust sued him in the archbishop's court. When the court ruled against Gutenberg, Fust was allowed to seize the printing press as collateral. The bulk of Gutenberg's presses and type pieces went to his employee and Fust’s future son-in-law, Peter Schöffer. Fust continued printing the Gutenberg 42-line Bibles, eventually publishing about 200 copies, of which only 22 exist today.

Gutenberg Bible Sells for Record Price at New York Christie's Auction
The first volume of the first edition Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, including books Genesis - Psalms. Volume two is missing. This copy is one of the three existing copies printed, illuminated, and bound in Mainz, Germany, circa 1455, by Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468). A paper copy of 324 leaves or 628 pages weighs 7.2 kilograms. This Gutenberg Bible Old Testament sold at auction in 1987 for $4,900,000. Rick Maiman / Getty Images

Virtually bankrupt, Gutenberg is believed to have started a smaller printing shop in the town of Bamberg around 1459. 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 new fonts and innovative techniques generally attributed to Gutenberg. The oldest surviving manuscript from the early Gutenberg press is that of a fragment of the poem "The Sibyl's Prophecy," 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 Mainz in 1903.

Movable Type

While printers had been using movable type made of ceramic or wood blocks for centuries, Gutenberg is generally credited with the invention of practical movable metal type printing. Instead of individually hand-carved blocks of wood, Gutenberg made metal molds of each letter or symbol into which he could pour molten metal, such as copper or lead. The resulting metal “slug” letters were more consistent and durable than wooden blocks and produced more easily readable print. Great quantities of each molded metal letter could be produced far more quickly than carved wood letters. The printer could thus arrange and rearrange the individual metal letter slugs as often as needed to print several different pages using the same letters.

Movable metal type descended from Gutenberg's press.
Movable metal type descended from Gutenberg's press. Willi Heidelbach/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For most books, setting up individual pages for printing with movable metal type proved far faster and economical than woodblock printing. The high quality and relative affordability of the Gutenberg Bible introduced movable metal type to Europe and established it as the preferred method of printing.

Books and Printing Before Gutenberg

The world-changing impact of Gutenberg’s press is best understood when viewed in the context of the state of books and printing before his time.

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.

Later Life and Death

Few details are known about Gutenberg's life after Johann Fust’s lawsuit in 1456. 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.

In January 1465, Adolf von Nassau-Wiesbaden, the archbishop of Mainz, recognized Gutenberg's achievements by granting him the title of Hofmann—a gentleman of the court. The honor provided Gutenberg an ongoing monetary stipend and fine clothing, as well as 2,180 liters (576 gallons) of grain and 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of wine tax-free.

The Johannes Gutenberg monument on the southern Rossmarkt
The Johannes Gutenberg monument on the southern Rossmarkt (1854 - 1858) by sculptor Eduard Schmidt von der Launitz in Frankfurt, Germany. Johannes Gutenberg was the inventor of book printing. The monument was inaugurated in 1840. Meinzahn / Getty Images

Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468, in Mainz. With little notice or acknowledgment of his contributions, he was buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan church at Mainz. When both the church and cemetery were destroyed in World War II, Gutenberg's grave was lost.

Many statues of Gutenberg can be found in Germany, including the famed 1837 statue by Dutch sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen at Gutenbergplatz in Mainz. In addition, Mainz is home to Johannes Gutenberg University and the Gutenberg Museum on the history of early printing.

Today, Gutenberg’s name and accomplishments are commemorated by Project Gutenberg, the oldest digital library containing over 60,000 free eBooks. In 1952, the United States Postal Service issued a five hundredth anniversary stamp commemorating Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press. 

'Book of Books' Exhibition Opens In Jerusalem
A museum employee shows how a Johannes Gutenberg replica printing press is used at the "Book of Books" exhibition in the Bible Lands Museum on October 23, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Legacy

Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press allowed mass communication to become a decisive factor in the European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation that splintered the powerful Catholic Church during the 16th century. The largely unrestricted spread of information sharply increased literacy throughout Europe, breaking the virtual monopoly the learned elite and religious clergy had held over education and learning for centuries. Bolstered by a new level of cultural self-awareness brought on by its increasing literacy, people of the emerging European middle class began using their own more easily understood vernacular languages rather than Latin as their commonly spoken and written language.

A vast improvement over both handwritten manuscripts and woodblock printing, Gutenberg’s movable metal type printing technology revolutionized book-making in Europe and soon spread throughout the developed world. By the early 19th century, Gutenberg’s hand-operated printing presses had largely been replaced by steam-powered rotary presses, allowing for all but specialty or limited-run printing to be done quickly and economically on an industrial scale.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Childress, Diana. “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press.” Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.
  • “Gutenberg’s Invention.” Fonts.com, https://www.fonts.com/content/learning/fontology/level-4/influential-personalities/gutenbergs-invention.
  • Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. “Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.
  • Kelly, Peter. “Documents that Changed the World: Gutenberg indulgence, 1454.” University of Wisconsin, November 2012, https://www.washington.edu/news/2012/11/16/documents-that-changed-the-world-gutenberg-indulgence-1454/.
  • Green, Jonathan. "Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
  • Kapr, Albert. "Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention." Trans. Martin, Douglas. Scolar Press, 1996.
  • Man, John. "The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History." London: Bantam Books, 2009.
  • Steinberg, S. H. "Five Hundred Years of Printing." New York: Dover Publications, 2017.

Updated by Robert Longley.