Johann Gutenberg and the Birth of the Printed Page

Gutenberg Printing press

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Johann Gutenberg is commonly credited as the inventor of the printing press and the father of the modern printed book. This led to a revolution in the spread of information that opened up the world to the quick and efficient dissemination of knowledge and ideas.

Gutenberg's cultural status as the forebear of modern book production led Time magazine to name him "Person of the Millennium" in 1999, yet little is known about the details of his life.

Gutenberg's Life

Johann Gutenberg was born around the year 1400 into an upper-class family of goldsmiths in Mainz, Germany. Most of his life is a mystery to us, and much of what we do know comes to us through legal documents.

For example, he was taken to court after promising to marry a young woman and backing out. He also owed money for a get-rich-quick scheme in which he sold polished metal mirrors to pilgrims on their way to Aachen Cathedral, claiming the mirrors could capture holy light.

Information from these and other legal documents, as well as intense scholarly investigation, suggest Gutenberg was a man passionately dedicated to the idea of the mass production of printed pages, an inventor who borrowed money in order to see his work through to completion—and one who was extremely secretive about his ideas.

One person who lent Gutenberg a substantial sum was Johann Fust, who eventually sued to get back his money and the accrued interest. He seems to have taken over the original press, which had been put up as collateral.

Gutenberg continued his printing career and appears to have continued modifying printing methods to enable additional efficiencies. At the end of his life, he was granted an allowance from the archbishop of Mainz for food and clothing, suggesting he lived out his days in relative comfort.

History of Movable Type

Some conjecture that Gutenberg's exposure to metal-casting methods in the family goldsmithing business gave him the skills necessary to create the individual, reusable letters that he had cast in metal, known as "movable type," but contrary to popular belief, this was not Gutenberg's crucial contribution.

The first movable type was made from porcelain by the Chinese artisan Bi Sheng about 400 years before Gutenberg's device, during China's medieval Song Dynasty.

This was followed by Chinese movable metal type, initially using bronze, which was later used to print entire books. The earliest of these was a collection of ritual books compiled in 1234 by the Korean civil minister Choe Yun-ui, but this did not survive.

The earliest book still in existence today that was printed with movable metal type is the Jikji, an anthology of Zen teachings by Buddhist priests compiled by the monk Baegun and printed in Korea in 1377.

Gutenberg's metal type necessitated the invention of new, oil-based inks that would stick to the type. It also necessitated the creation of a device that could transfer—or "press"—the ink evenly onto the pages. It's assumed Gutenberg used a screw press to print his books.

Similar devices were used at the time to make paper and to press grapes for wine.
Improvements in paper production brought costs down and made the paper a viable substance for books, more economical than vellum.

Gutenberg's Bibles

The Gutenberg Bibles, which date from the 1450s, are considered the first books printed in the Western world and, although they don't bear the printer's name anywhere in the volumes, are attributed to Gutenberg's first printing efforts.

Several of these are in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and are frequently on display.

Gutenberg's Legacy

Prior to the invention of the printing press, books existed in codex form. That is, books were hand-copied, and a Bible would take around two years to produce.

Most of the general public would have seen a Bible only in church, and all but the wealthy would likely have had to travel to see a classic text such as Homer's Illiad.

As book printing-publishing became a business, the first book trade fair was established in Frankfurt, Germany, not far from where Gutenberg printed his first Bible.

The efficiencies of using movable type and a printing press to produce books quickly paved the way for the mass production of books and other reading material, including printed handbills advertising these early books—the first book marketing!

Printed information caught on quickly as a method of communication. For the first time in history, ideas were literally put in the public's hands in the form of the printed word, and book publishing enabled knowledge and culture to spread at a rate faster than ever before.