Gutenberg, Johann (c.1400–1468)
Johann Gutenberg was a German printer and goldsmith, usually considered the inventor of printing
from separately cast metal types. He experimented with printing in the 1430s
and by 1450 he had a press in Mainz, financed by Johann Fust (c.1400–1466).
In 1455 he handed over the press (and his invention) to Fust in repayment
of debts. By now the Gutenberg (or Mainz) Bible was at least well under
way: each page has two columns of 42 lines.
There are many details of Gutenberg's life and career which we do not know.
This lack of information is further complicated by the inventors failure
to date or sign his works. But let's consider some of the facts and theories
generally accepted by scholars.
Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. Early in his life there was an uprising
in Mainz and his family was apparently forced to move to Strasbourg. In
1438 he entered into partnership with three other men with the object of
'exploiting new ideas'. In return for financial support, Gutenberg was to
instruct his partners in 'new arts'. One of them, Andreas Dritzehn, died
shortly after the formation of the partnership. His heirs brought a court
action against Gutenberg in an attempt to force him to repay them some of
the money invested or to accept them as partners in Dritzehn's place. However,
the court decided in favour of Gutenberg. In records of the court proceedings,
one of the witnesses used the word drucken: from this it is usually
assumed that the art of printing was really the object of the partnership.
Fragments of a poem and an astronomical calendar which are preserved are
believed to have been printed in this period. According to astronomers,
the calendar was for the year 1448. If this is correct it would mean that
the printing from movable types was invented in 1447, or before.
The Gutenberg Bible
About this time Gutenberg borrowed large sums of money, principally from
a Mainz lawyer named Johann Fust. The reason for these loans was to enable
him to print a Bible. Right from the start he was in financial difficulties
and after printing the first ten pages he tried to reduce the cost of the
paper by using 42 instead of 40 lines of type per page. In 1455, before
the great work was completed, Fust sued for repayment of the loans. What
was his purpose? It is sometimes thought that he wanted to take over the
press and the nearly completed Bibles. If so, he was successful, because
with the aid of one of Gutenberg's assistants, Peter Schoeffer, Fust set
up his own press, finished the printing and sold the Bibles.
| A SHORT HISTORY OF PRINTING
Gutenberg was known as the 'father of printing', but this is not true,
because he did not actually invent printing. What he did do was invent
the process of printing from movable types. Printing was in fact many
centuries old by the time of Gutenberg, and one of its earliest forms
was the use of seals and wooden blocks.
In this process, the picture was painted onto wood and the unwanted
parts cut out, leaving the outlines in relief. The surface was then
coated in watery ink, damp paper laid over it, and the ink transferred
by rubbing on the back of the paper with the hand or a burnisher.
This process was ideally suited to the reproduction of pictures. In
the 11th century a Chinese workman produced movable types of clay.
The process was unsuccessful due to the large number of characters
in the Chinese language. And then a system called metallography was
Metal punches were carved of the various letters of the alphabet in
relief. These raised punches were then pressed into clay, which was
A molten alloy of lead and tin was next poured over the matrix (the
hardened clay containing the impressions of the letters). When the
metal cooled it was separated from the matrix, giving a plate with
the letters in relief.
These metal plates were then used for printing, However, the results
were never very good, because it proved quite difficult in practice
to press the punches evenly into the clay matrix, so the impression
It is believed that Gutenberg managed to save some of his possessions from
this lawsuit and started again by printing a Bible with 36 lines to the
page and a Catholicon (a kind of vocabulary). After 1460 he seems to have
abandoned printing, and in 1465 he received a pension from archbishop Adolph
|The invention of the movable types revolutionized
printing. Errors could be corrected and the letters used again and
again. A separate metal matrix was used for each letter, from which
many identical types could be cast.