Johannes Gutenberg Biography (1395-1468)


Gutenberg is considered the inventor of movable metallic type that made printing many books at once practical for the first time. Movable type revolutionized printing, fostered the standardization of type size and ushered in the beginning of mass communication in fifteenth century Europe.

Printed books had been in existence long before Gutenberg. The oldest surviving book is one from China produced in 868 a.d. when wooden blocks were engraved with characters and then inked. Eleventh century Chinese books and 13th century Korean books show that printing was accomplished with some movable type. However, because Asian languages use thousands of complex characters for words rather than letters of an alphabet, movable type had a limited practicality. In Europe, perhaps twenty years before Gutenberg, a Dutchchurch official, Laurens Janszoon Coster, is credited with using some movabletype but not with the precise system set up by Gutenberg.

Gutenberg was born sometime between 1395 and 1400 in Mainz, Germany to a wealthy, political family named Gensfleisch, but was most often known by his mother's name, Gutenberg. Little is known of his youth other than he was probablya member of the goldsmith's guild. Local political upheaval caused him to beexiled from Mainz and he moved to Strasbourg, Germany, where he worked in secret with partners on his printing inventions. Gutenberg was working on the letterpress--a mold for each individual letter of the alphabet cast out of equal amounts of metal alloy. The letters could be arranged into words along even lines and then locked together into a rigid form, making a page. The form was placed in a printing press and the letters covered with inks similar to paints used by early Flemish artists. When sheets of paper pressed against theletters, thousands of copies of the same page could be produced in a short time. With this invention, the type could then be separated and reused to makeother pages. This process could make books faster and cheaper to manufacture.

Upon the death of one of his partners, the nature of Gutenberg's invention was brought to light in a trial at which the partner's heirs attempted to sue Gutenberg. Gutenberg won the lawsuit and later, became partners with a wealthybenefactor named Johann Fust. Fust, a practical man, wanted to print a bookthat would sell many copies. The two agreed to work on a Bible. Their most well-known achievement was the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1455. It is also called the 42 line Bible, referring to the fact that every page had 42 lines of type. However, Gutenberg wanted to spend time working on other creative projects and perfecting his printing process. This led Fust to sue Gutenberg--and this time Gutenberg was the big loser. Then Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schoffer, a calligrapher and former Gutenberg student, became printers of a famous hymn book in 1457. But many people believed that Gutenberg did at least part of the book because of the fine craftsmanship.

Despite the lawsuits and bickering, Gutenberg did enjoy the fruits of his labor later in his life by being named a member of the royal court and receivinga yearly allowance. By the time he died on February 3, 1468, Gutenberg's invention had already spread throughout Europe-- north to Sweden, east to Poland, west to Portugal. Printing was the first mass production industry, allowingone person, a printer, to do the work formerly done by many scribes writingby hand. Its impact on communication was far-reaching. Although improvementswere made in Gutenberg's method, no vast changes were made in printing untilthe twentieth century.

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