Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) was an inventor, blacksmith, printer, goldsmith and publisher who developed Europe’s first mechanical moveable-type printing press. The press made books – and the knowledge they contained – affordable and widely available, with works such as the ‘Gutenberg Bible’ playing a key part in speeding up the advancement of the modern knowledge-based economy.
The impact of his invention cannot be understated. A milestone in modern human history, it started the printing revolution in Europe, ushered in the modern period of human history and played a pivotal role in the evolution of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
In 1997, Time-Life magazine selected Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the whole second millennium.
So, who was printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg?
His father was probably a goldsmith
Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in around 1400 in the German city of Mainz. He was the second of three children of patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden and shopkeeper’s daughter Else Wyrich. Some records indicate that the family belonged to the aristocracy, and that Johannes’ father worked as a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz.
Little is known about his early life and education. However, it’s known that he lived in the Gutenberg house in Mainz, which is where he derived his surname from.
He did printing experiments
In 1428, a craftsman’s revolt against the noble classes broke out in Mainz. Gutenberg’s family were exiled and settled in what we now call Strasbourg, France. It’s known that Gutenberg worked with his father in the ecclesiastical mint, and learned to read and write in German and Latin, which was the language of both churchmen and scholars.
Already familiar with bookmaking techniques, Gutenberg started his printing experiments in Strasbourg. He perfected the usage of small metal type, rather than the usage of woodblocks for printing, since the latter took a long time to carve and were prone to breaking. He developed a casting system and metal alloys which made production easier.
Little is known about his life more specifically. However, a letter written by him in March 1434 indicated that he may have married a woman in Strasbourg called Ennelin.
The Gutenberg Bible was his masterpiece
In 1448, Gutenberg returned to Mainz and set up a print shop there. By 1452, in order to fund his printing experiments, Gutenberg entered into a business partnership with local financier Johann Fust.
Gutenberg’s most famous work was the Gutenberg Bible. Consisting of three volumes of text written in Latin, it featured 42 lines of type per page and was decorated with colourful illustrations. The size of the font made the text extremely easy to read, which proved popular among church clergy. By 1455, he had printed several copies of his Bible. Only 22 survive today.
In a letter written in March 1455, the future Pope Pius II recommended the Gutenberg Bible to Cardinal Carvajal. He wrote that “the script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow. Your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.”
He fell into financial trouble
By December 1452, Gutenberg was in severe debt to Fust and was unable to repay his loan. Fust sued Gutenberg in the archbishop’s court, which ruled in the former’s favour. Fust then seized the printing press as collateral, and gave the majority of Gutenberg’s presses and type pieces to his employee and Fust’s future son-in-law, Peter Schöffer.
Along with the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg also created the Psalter (book of Psalms) which was also given to Fust as part of the settlement. Decorated with hundreds of two-colour initial letters and delicate scroll borders, it was the first book to display the name of its printers, Fust and Schöffer. However, historians are almost certain that Gutenberg was working for the pair in the business he had once owned, and devised the method himself.
Little is known about his later life
After Fust’s lawsuit, little is known about Gutenberg’s life. While some historians claim that Gutenberg continued to work for Fust, others say that he drove him out of business. By 1460, he abandoned printing entirely. Some speculate this was because he was starting to go blind.
In 1465, Adolf van Nassau-Wiesbaden, the archbishop of Mainz, granted Gutenberg the title of Hofmann, a gentleman of the court. This entitled him to a salary, fine clothing and tax-free grain and wine.
He died on 3 February 1468 in Mainz. There was little acknowledgment of his contributions and he was buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan church at Mainz. When both the church and cemetery were destroyed during World War Two, Gutenberg’s grave was lost.
His invention changed the course of history
Gutenberg’s invention revolutionised book-making in Europe, making mass communication possible and sharply increasing literacy rates across the continent.
The unrestricted spread of information became a decisive factor in the European Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, and broke the virtual monopoly of the religious clergy and educated elite over education for centuries. Moreover, vernacular languages rather than Latin became more commonly spoken and written.