It could not be more fitting than to start our site with a bio of Johannes himself.
Johannes Gutenberg, A Study of Innovation
Every era has its share of innovation. Sometimes that innovation is specific to an industry or need of the moment. There are some innovations that are so monumental they have the power to transform not just a moment but an entire way of life. The invention of the moveable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1447 is one such invention.
Given the historical significance of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, it is rather remarkable that not much is known about his early life. Even his exact birthdate is unknown, but it is generally agreed that he was born sometime in 1398. He was the second of 3 children born to a wealthy merchant father, Friele Gensfleich and his second wife, Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper, whose family were once members of the German aristocracy. At the time it was common practice for the home or property where they lived rather than the last name of their father to determine a person’s surname. Johannes lived in the Gutenberg house in Mainz as a child and into adulthood, which accounts for his surname.
Socioeconomic unrest struck in Mainz in 1411. Craftsmen revolted against the aristocracy, forcing hundreds of wealthy families to flee. His family left Mainz for Eltville am Rhein, Germany, where they lived on an estate which his mother inherited. He studied goldsmithing at the University of Erfurt and could read and write in both German and Latin. His life from 1418 when he enrolled in school and March 1434 when a letter written by Gutenberg revealed that he was living with relatives in Strausberg, Germany and working as a goldsmith, is unknown. It is believed that during that time he was working with his father in the ecclesiastical mint as a goldsmith’s apprentice.
Gutenberg’s Printing Press
While in Strausberg, Gutenberg worked as a goldsmith for the local militia. During the early 1400s European metalsmiths were familiar with woodblock printing and engraving. Many metalsmiths of that era, including Gutenberg, were experimenting with the technology of the day, the printing press. How he went from experimentation to a working model is not known but the first known reference to his invention was in 1439 when he referenced his idea of a printing press design inspired by a winepress that used movable metal type to a group of business investors to whom he owed money. The only other known reference to his invention in appeared in a book published in 1440 entitled “Aventur und Kunst” which translates to Enterprise and Art. Gutenberg returned to Mainz in 1448 and with a loan from his brother and law began assembling a prototype of his movable type printing press. It would be two years before he completed his work and had a fully operational press. Besides inventing a printing press that could print on both sides of a sheet of parchment, Gutenberg is credited with creating an oil-based ink in a time where all inks were water based. The oil-based ink was more durable than its water-based predecessor.
Gutenberg abandoned the wood block letters used in printing at the time and created metal molds of each letter into which molten metal is poured. The resulting metal letters were more durable than their wooden counterparts and produced clearer, more readable print. The molds allowed for the production of letter copies faster than their hand carved wooden counterparts. Printers could arrange and rearrange the letters to print multiple pages. This method was not only faster but cheaper than woodblock printing and soon became the preferred method of printing and factored heavily into the transmission of the written word during the European Renaissance.
In 1450, Gutenberg borrows money to start his printing business and continue his experiments in printing. In 1452, he endeavors to complete his most ambitious printing project to date a 1200-page copy of the bible. The Gutenberg Bible featured 42 lines per page and full-color illustrations. It took 3 years to complete. It was widely popular among members of the church, including Pope Pius II. 200 copies of Gutenberg’s Bible were printed and 22 survive today.
Gutenberg’s Life After Printing
In 1456, Gutenberg ran into legal trouble when his lender demanded payment of the money he had loaned Gutenberg. Gutenberg was unable to pay back his loan with interest and their financial disagreement ended up in court, where the Archbishop ruled against Gutenberg and his lender was allowed to seize his press as collateral. It is unclear what happened to Gutenberg after the lawsuit and loss of his press. It is believed that he opened a small printing business and continued to print until 1460 when he stopped printing altogether. He lived in relative obscurity until 1465, when his achievements in printing we recognized by Adolf von Nassau-Wiesbaden, the Archbishop of Mainz. Johannes Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468.
Gutenberg’s impact on the world was not fully appreciated in his lifetime. Following his death, his invention spread throughout Europe. Credited for helping to propel Europe into the Early Modern Period, Gutenberg’s printing press played a role in both the Renaissance and the Reformation.