Johannes Gutenberg

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This article is about Johannes Gutenberg. For other uses of the term Gutenberg, please see Gutenberg (disambiguation).
A statue of Gutenberg in Strasbourg, France.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (c. 1398 – c. February 3, 1468) was a German goldsmith credited with inventing movable type printing in Europe (ca. 1450). The major literary work produced by Gutenberg's printing press, the Gutenberg Bible, has been acclaimed for its aesthetic and technical qualities.

Although movable type was known in Korea in the 13th century, Gutenberg's printing technology was most likely an independent invention. Among Gutenberg's specific contributions were the design of movable type, the invention of a process for making such type, the use of oil-based ink, and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the screw olive and wine presses of the period. His truly epochal invention was the combination of these elements into a practical system. Gutenberg may have been familiar with printing, it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards.[1] Gutenberg's method for making type is traditionally considered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type.

The use of movable type was a marked improvement on the handwritten manuscript, which was the existing method of book production in Europe, and upon woodblock printing, and revolutionized European book-making. Gutenberg's printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe and is considered a key factor in the European Renaissance. Consequently, Gutenberg remains a towering figure in the popular image; in 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg at number one on their "People of the Millennium" countdown.


Early life and education

Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife Else Wyrich, daughter of a shopkeeper. According to some accounts Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely he was involved in the cloth trade[2]. Gutenberg's year of birth is not known; it was certainly between 1394 and 1404, most likely around 1400.

At the time, patricians in Mainz were often named after the houses they owned, and around 1427, the name zu Gudenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented for the first time.[2]

Sometime after 1419 when his father died, the family adopted the surname zum Gutenberg after the name of the house ("Good Hill") in Mainz where the family had moved. The house had previously been known as Judenberg, Jewish Hill. According to historian John Man, "In the 1282 pogrom, fifty-four Jewish properties were abandoned and were grabbed by the rich and powerful. It seems that the Gutenberg house fell to the archbishop's treasurers... It was later acquired by the great-great-grandfather of our inventor and stayed in the family." He goes on to speculate why the family of Gensfleisch ("Gooseflesh") house kept that name instead of taking the Gutenberg name that would associate them with the Jewish history of the place, until much later.[3]

In 1411,there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. The Gutenbergs may have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. He may have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of a student in 1419 named Johannes de Alta villa. Following his father's death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.


In 1411,there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. The Gutenbergs may have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. He may have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of a student in 1419 named Johannes de Alta villa. Following his father's death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.

Nothing is known of Gutenberg's life for the next fifteen years, but in March 1434, a letter by him indicates that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some relatives on his mother's side. He also appears to have been a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia. In 1437, there is evidence that he was instructing a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems, but where he had acquired this knowledge is unknown. In 1436/37 his name also comes up in court in connection with a broken promise of marriage to a woman from Strasbourg, Ennelin.[4] Whether the marriage actually took place is not recorded.

Printing Press

Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a misadventure making mirrors for pilgrims to Aachen, and when the question of repaying the money came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a "secret". It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light"[5].

At least up to 1444, he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogust suburb. It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, presumably for a printing press.

By 1450, the press was most likely in operation, and a German poem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schoeffer, who became Fust's son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Shoeffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and designed some of the first typefaces.

Gutenberg's workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profitmaking enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454–55.

In 1455, Gutenberg brought out the 42-line Bible, commonly known as the Gutenberg Bible, of which about 180 were printed. Most printings were on paper, although some were printed on vellum. The Gutenberg Bible contains a Latin translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and a Latin translation of the Greek New Testament; the translations were mainly the work of Jerome (c.345-420 AD)[6].

Business dealings

Sometime in 1455, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust, and Fust demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of embezzling funds. Meanwhile the expenses of the Bible project had proliferated, and Gutenberg's debt now exceeded 2000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop's court. A November 1455 legal document records that there was a partnership for a "project of the books" the funds of which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. The court decided in favour of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.

Thus Gutenberg was effectively bankrupted, but it appears he retained (or re-started) a small printing shop, and participated in the printing of a bible in Bamberg around 1459, for which he at least supplied the type. But since his printed books never carry his name or a date, it is difficult to be certain, and there is consequently a considerable scholarly literature. It is also possible that the large Catholicon dictionary, 300 copies of 744 pages, printed in Mainz in 1460, may have been executed in his workshop.

Meanwhile, the Fust–Schoeffer shop were the first to bring out a book with the printer's name and date, the Mainz Psalter of August 1457, and while proudly proclaiming the mechanical process by which it had been produced, it made no mention of Gutenberg.


Later life

In 1462, during a conflict between two archbishops, Mainz was sacked by archbishop Adolf von Nassau, and Gutenberg was exiled. An old man by now, he moved to Eltville where he may have initiated and supervised a new printing press belonging to the brothers Bechtermünze.

In January 1465, Gutenberg's achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by Adolf von Nassau. This honour included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2180 liters of grain and 2000 liters of wine tax-free. It is believed he may have moved back to Mainz around this time, but this is not certain.

Gutenberg died in 1468 and was buried in the Franziskanerkirche, Mainz, his contributions largely unknown. This church and the cemetery were later destroyed, and Gutenberg's grave is lost.

In 1504, he was mentioned as the inventor of typography in a book by Professor Ivo Wittig. It was not until 1567 that the first portrait of Gutenberg, almost certainly an imaginary reconstruction, appeared in Heinrich Pantaleons biography of famous Germans.[4]

Gutenberg's printed books

Between 1450 and 1455, Gutenberg printed several texts, but details are not known; his texts did not bear the printer's name or date, so attribution is possible only through external references. Certainly several church documents including a papal letter and two indulgences were printed. Some printed editions of Ars Minor, a schoolbook on Latin grammar by Aelius Donatus may have been printed by Gutenberg; these have been dated either 1451–52 or 1455.

In 1455 (possibly starting 1454), Gutenberg brought out copies of a beautifully executed folio Bible (Biblia Sacra), with 42 lines on each page. The pages of the books were not bound, and the date 1455 is documented on the spine by the binder for a copy bound in Paris.

The Bible sold for 30 florins each,[7] which was roughly three years' wages for an average clerk. Nonetheless, it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible that could take a single scribe over a year to prepare. After printing the text portions, each book was hand illustrated to mimic the elegant work of scribes.

The Gutenberg Bible, in common with the manuscript books of its era, lacks many print features that modern readers are accustomed to, such as pagination, word spacing, indentations, and paragraph breaks. As of 2003, the Gutenberg Bible census includes 11 complete copies on vellum, 1 copy of the New Testament only on vellum, 48 substantially complete integral copies on paper, with another divided copy on paper, and an illuminated page (the Bagford fragment).

Another, 36-line edition of the Bible was also printed, some years after the first edition, and in large part set from a copy of it, thus disproving earlier speculation that this may have been the first Bible of the two. Kapr, Albert (1996). Johannes Gutenberg: the Man and His Invention. Scolar Press, 322. ISBN 1839281141. 

Gutenberg's method of printing with movable type

Gutenberg's early printing process, and what tests he may have made with movable type, are not known in great detail. His later Bibles were printed six pages at a time, and would have required 100,000 pieces of type—making the type alone would take two man years. [8] Setting each page would take at least half a day, and considering all the work in loading the press, inking the type, hanging up the sheets, etc., it is thought that the Gutenberg–Fust shop might have employed about 25 craftsmen.

Gutenberg's technique of making movable type remains unclear. In the following decades, punches and copper matrices became standardized in the rapidly disseminating printing presses across Europe. Whether Gutenberg used this sophisticated technique or a somewhat primitive version has been the subject of considerable debate.

In the standard process of making type, a hard metal punch (with the letter carved back to front) is hammered into the soft metal copper, creating a mould or matrix. This is then placed into a holder, and cast by filling with hot type-metal, which cooled down to create a piece of type. The matrix can now be reused to create hundreds of identical letters, so that the same type appearing anywhere in the book will appear similar, giving rise to the growth of fonts. Subsequently, these letters are placed on a rack and inked; using a press, many hundred copies can be made. The letters can be reused in any combination, earning the process the name of 'movable type'. (For details, see Typography).

Was the type produced by punches and copper matrices?

Such is the process that has been widely attributed to have been Gutenberg's invention, but it appears from recent evidence that Gutenberg's actual process was somewhat different. If he used the punch and matrix approach, all his letters should have been identical, within some variation possibly due to inking. However, the type used in Gutenberg's printed Bibles were quite irregular.

In 2001, the physicist Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Princeton librarian Paul Needham, used digital scans of the Gutenberg Bible in the Scheide Library, Princeton, to carefully compare the same letters (types) appearing in different parts of the Gutenberg 42-line Bible [9] [10].

The irregularities in Gutenberg's type, particularly in simple characters such as the hyphen, made it clear that the variations could not have come from either ink smear or from wear and damage on the pieces of metal on the types themselves. While some identical types are clearly used on other pages, other variations, subjected to detailed image analysis, made for only one conclusion: that they could not have been produced from the same matrix. They hypothesized that the method used involved using the punch to make a mould, but that the process of taking the type out would disturb the mould, resulting in non-identical type.

Thus, they feel that "the decisive factor for the birth of typography", the use of reusable moulds for casting type, might have been a more progressive process than was previously thought (also see Adams 91 [11] Chapter 4). They suggest that the additional step of using the punch to create a mould that could be reused many times was not taken until 20 years later, in the 1470s.

Other hypotheses

The 19th c. printer and typefounder Fournier Le Jeune suggested that Gutenberg might not have been using type cast with a reusable matrix, but possibly wooden types that were carved individually. However, this appears unlikely given the uniformity of the bulk of the type he used.

It has also been questioned whether Gutenberg used movable types at all. In 2004, Italian professor Bruno Fabbiani claimed that examination of the 42-line Bible revealed an overlapping of letters, suggesting that Gutenberg did not in fact use movable type (individual cast characters) but rather used whole plates made from a system somewhat like a modern typewriter, whereby the letters were stamped successively into the plate and then printed. However, most specialists regard the occasional overlapping of type as caused by paper movement over pieces of type of slightly unequal height.

Other claimed European inventors

A 1568 history by Hadrianus Junius of Holland claims that the basic idea of the movable type came to Gutenberg from Laurens Janszoon Coster via Fust, who was apprenticed to Coster in the 1430s and may have brought some of his equipment to Mainz. While Coster appears to have experimented with moulds and cast-able metal type, there is no evidence that he had actually printed anything with this technology. There is even less evidence for other claimants such as Panfilo Castaldi.

Was Gutenberg influenced by East Asian printing?

For more information, see: History of typography in East Asia.

Since the use of printing from movable type arose in East Asia well before it did in Europe, it is relevant to ask whether Gutenberg may have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the Korean or Chinese discoveries of movable type printing, or their earlier discoveries of block printing.

Movable types made from clay were introduced in China by Bi Sheng, between 1041 to 1048. Cast metal movable type was introduced during the Goryeo dynasty of Korea and is associated with Chae Yun-eui (around 1230).[12] A set of ritual books, Sangjong Gogeum Yemun were printed with the movable metal type in 1234.[13] The oldest surviving book printed with movable type is from Korea, dated 1377, but [14] unlike the metal punch system thought to be used by Gutenberg, the Koreans used a sand-casting method.

mong the people known to have used movable type are the Uighurs of Central Asia, whose written script was adopted for the Mongol script. There has been considerable conjecture whether some news of this technology, if not printed samples, had reached Europe, e.g. in this article[15] by Tom Christensen :

What is certain, however, is that printing with movable wooden type is documented from the eleventh century; that printing with movable metal type had been an active enterprise in Korea since 1234; that other printing technologies had Asian origins and were subsequently transmitted to the West; that a single empire (the Mongol khanates) stretched from Korea to Europe through much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, facilitating cross-cultural exchange across a large region; that there was considerable East-West travel, contact, and exchange during this period; that the written record of such contacts records only a fraction of what actually occurred; and that there was awareness of Asian printing in Europe in the centuries before Gutenberg...[but] as Eva Hanebutt-Benz properly observes, “We do not know if Johannes Gutenberg had any kind of knowledge of the fact that long before his invention printing with moveable type was done in East-Asia.”

Whatever may be the facts regarding primacy in this invention, there can be no doubt that it was Gutenberg's genius in putting together the printing technologies that considerably accelerated Europe's renaissance.[3]


The capital of printing in Europe shifted to Venice, where visionary printers like Aldus Manutius ensured widespread availability of the major Greek and Latin texts. The claims of an Italian origin for movable type have also focused on this rapid rise of Italy in movable-type printing, but this may perhaps be explained by the prior eminence of Italy in the paper and printing trade, and also the dispersal of Gutenberg's compositors and typefounders (like Nicolas Jenson) after the sack of Mainz in 1462.

Printing was also a factor in the Reformation: Martin Luther found that the 95 Theses, which he posted on the door of his church, were printed and circulated widely; subsequently he also issued broadsheets outlining his anti-indulgences position (ironically, indulgences were one of the first items Gutenberg had printed). The broadsheet evolved into newspapers and defined the mass media we know today.

In the decades after Gutenberg, many conservative patrons looked down on cheap printed books; books produced by hand were considered more desirable.

There are many statues of Gutenberg in Germany, including the famous one by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1837) in Mainz, home to the Gutenberg Museum and the eponymous Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The Gutenberg Galaxy and Project Gutenberg also commemorate Gutenberg's name. Matthew Skelton's book Endymion Spring explores a controversial theory about Johann Gutenberg and his partner Fust.

See also


  1. Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Eva-Maria Hanebutt-Benz, director Gutenberg Museum. Gutenberg and Mainz. Retrieved on 2006-11-24. This is a meticulous biography, carefully pruning things down to only that which is known.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Man, John, Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Word (2002) pp.166-7, Wiley, ISBN 0-4712-1823-5.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Gutenberg und seine Zeit in Daten (Gutenberg and his times; Timeline). Gutenberg Museum, Mainz. Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  5. James Burke (1985). The day the Universe Changed. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Co. 
  6. "Gutenberg Bible", Treasures in Full, British Library © The British Library Board. On this site are the British Library’s two copies of the Gutenberg Bible.. The British Library (?). Retrieved on 2007-04-23.
  7. Lesley B. Cormack and Andrew Ede, A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility, Broadview Press Ltd., 2004 ISBN 1-55111-332-5
  8. C. Singer, E. Holmyard, A. Hall and T. Williams (1958). A History of Technology, vol.3. Oxford University Press. 
  9. Agüera y Arcas, Blaise; Paul Needham (November 2002). "Computational analytical bibliography". Proceedings Bibliopolis Conference The future history of the book', The Hague (Netherlands): Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
  10. What Did Gutenberg Invent? - Discovery. BBC / Open University (2006). Retrieved on 2006-10-25.
  11. James L. Adams (1991). Flying Buttresses, Entropy and O-Rings: the World of an Engineer. Harvard University Press. 
  12. Baek Sauk Gi (1987). Woong-Jin-Wee-In-Jun-Gi #11 Jang Young Sil, page 61. Woongjin Publishing.
  13. Kim, Kumja Paik (2003). Goryeo Dynasty: Korea's Age of Enlightenment, 918–1392. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum. 
  14. Michael Twyman, The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Techniques, London: The British Library, 1998. Google books link
  15. Thomas Christensen (2007). Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?. Arts of Asia Magazine (to appear). Retrieved on 2006-10-18.

Further reading

External links