Johannes Gutenberg and His Revolutionary Printing Press

Engraving of publisher and printer Johannes Gutenberg
Grafissimo / Getty Images

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 / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons 

Although historians can't pinpoint when the first book was created, the oldest known book in existence was printed in China in 868 A.D. "The Diamond Sutra," a copy of a sacred Buddhist text, isn't bound like modern books are; it's 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 why he had the scroll created. Today, it is in the collection of the British Museum in London.

By 932 A.D., 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, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany. Born sometime between 1394 and 1400, little is know about his early life. What is known is that by 1438, Gutenberg had begun experimenting with printing techniques using metal movable type and had secured funding from a wealthy businessman named Andreas Dritzehn.

Illustration of Gutenberg's printing press.
Gutenberg's printing press. ilbusca / Getty Images

It is unclear when Gutenberg began publishing using 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

Copy of Gutenberg's Bible on display in Lenox Library.
NYC Wanderer / Kevin Eng / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

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. Fust continued printing the Bibles, eventually publishing about 200 copies, of which only 22 exist today. 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. All this is certain is that Gutenberg lived until 1468, supported financially by the archbishop of Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg's final resting place is unknown, although he is believed to have been laid to rest in Mainz.


Garner, April, project coordinator. "Teaching Gutenberg." Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed 6 March 2018.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut E. "Johannes Gutenberg, German Printer." 8 June 2017.