Up to the 15th Century, ALL BOOKS in Europe were handwritten (manuscripts) or were printed from hand-carved wooden blocks. Knowledge spread slowly to a small number of people. The invention of moveable metal type (letters) and the printing press created a revolution. These inventions were the work of Johannes Gutenberg.

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. He started experimenting with printing by 1438. In 1450 Gutenberg obtained backing from the financier Johann Fust, whose impatience and other factors led to Gutenberg’s loss of his establishment to Fust several years later. Gutenberg’s masterpiece, and the first book ever printed from movable type, is the “Forty-Two-Line” Bible, completed no later than 1455. Gutenberg died in Mainz in 1468.

Experiments in Printing

When a craftsman revolt erupted in Mainz against the noble class in 1428, Johannes Gutenberg’s family was exiled and settled in what is now Strasbourg, France, where his experiments with printing began. Already familiar with bookmaking, Gutenberg perfected small metal type. Infinitely more practical than carving complete wood blocks for printing, each type was a single letter or character. Movable type had been used in Asia hundreds of years earlier, but Gutenberg’s innovation was developing a casting system and metal alloys which made production easier.

How the Press worked

With the original printing press, a frame is used to set groups of type blocks. Together, these blocks make words and sentences; however, they are all in reverse. The blocks are all inked and then a sheet of paper is laid on the blocks. All of this passes through a roller to ensure that the ink is transferred to the paper. Finally when the paper is lifted, the reader can see the inked letters that now appear normally as a result of the reversed blocks. These printing presses were operated by hand. Later towards the 19th century, other inventors created steam-powered printing presses that did not require a hand operator. In comparison, today’s printing presses are electronic and automated, and can print far faster than ever before!

Financial Trouble

In 1448, Johannes Gutenberg moved back to Mainz and by 1450 was operating a print shop. He had borrowed 800 guilders from local financier Johann Fust to purchase specific tools and equipment needed for his unique typography method. By December, 1452, Gutenberg was heavily in debt and unable to pay Fust’s loan. A new agreement was drawn up making Fust a partner in Gutenberg’s business. However, by 1455, Gutenberg was still unable to pay the debt and Fust sued. Court records are sketchy,but scholars believe that while the trial was going on, Gutenberg was able to print his masterpiece, the “Forty-Two-Line” Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

Fust eventually won the suit and took over most of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing business, including the production of his Bibles. Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg’s son-in-law, who had testified against him during the trial, now joined Fust as a partner in the business. In addition to the Bible, Gutenberg’s other major achievement was the Psalter (the book of Psalms) which was also given to Fust as part of the settlement. The Psalter is decorated with hundreds of two-color initial letters and delicate scroll borders using an ingenious method based on multiple inking on a single metal block. The Psalter was the first book to display the name of its printers, Fust and Schoffer, but historians believe that neither could have developed such a sophisticated method alone and that Gutenberg must have been working for the pair in the business he once owned.

Later Life

In 1462, Mainz was sacked by Archbishop Adolph II in a dispute over control of the city and Fust and Gutenberg’s printing businesses were destroyed. Many of the city’s topographers fled to other parts of Germany and Europe, taking their techniques and technology with them. Gutenberg remained in Mainz, but once again fell into poverty. The Archbishop granted him the title of Hofmann (gentleman of the court) in 1465, which provided a salary and privileges for services rendered. Gutenberg carried on his printing activities for several more years, but little evidence exists of what he actually published because he didn’t put his name on any of his printings.

Records of Johannes Gutenberg’s later years are as sketchy as his early life. Still living in Mainz, it is believed that he went blind in the last months of his life. He died on February 3, 1468, and was buried in the church of the Franciscan convent in the nearby town of Eltville, Germany.

Gutenberg’s press spread quickly and there was one working in all major cities in Europe in a very short space of time. Aldus Manutius of Venice and William Caxton in London were important printers in their countries and helped spread knowledge across the continent.

printing press 2

Effects of the Printing Press

  • Plentiful supply of books
  • Books were cheaper
  • Spread of literacy
  • More education
  • Spread new ideas – led to Age of Explorations, further study in Renaissance, Reformation and Revolutions!

So there you go, although he probably only did Business to the Junior Cert, Johannes Gutenberg is responsible for one of the greatest inventions in the world!

For more on Gutenberg, check this out:

For more on the Renaissance and other topics, keep it here!


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