Inventor of Movable Type Printing
Little is known about Gutenberg’s life. He was born sometime between 1394 and 1400, most likely in Mainz, a small city in present day southwestern Germany. Gutenberg trained as a goldsmith, which led him to experiment with the special metal alloys he used in typecasting. He may have also attended university, but that can only be inferred from his knowledge of Latin.
As with many European craftsmen of the period, Gutenberg’s experiments in printing were encouraged by economic incentives as well as by the social and intellectual climate. Literacy was rising and universities were multiplying, leading to an increased demand for printed matter. In many university towns, large scale duplication of literature was a thriving business, employing many scribes who hand reproduced books one at a time. The need for a more efficient means of reproducing printed matter was mounting.
By 1450, Johann Fust, a businessman of Mainz, lent Gutenberg money for his experiments, and in 1452 they formed a partnership under which Gutenberg perfected his methods. He forged easily cast uniform typeface, formulated a special ink that would adhere to metal, and modified the standard wooden wine press to fit the task of printing on paper. While other craftsmen experimented with similar techniques, Gutenberg was the first to successfully integrate them all into a new printing process. In 1455 the partnership dissolved because of Fuses demand for repayment on his investment. By the end of the partnership, they produced the now famous 42line Bible (often called the Gutenberg Bible).
Gutenberg produced few other books following the split with Fust. One is referred to as the 36line Bible and another is the Catholicon, a popular encyclopedia, which Gutenberg printed in 1460. Gutenberg likely stopped printing after its production, perhaps because of blindness. In 1465 he received a pension from the Archbishop of Mainz Adolf II. Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468.
Johannes Gutenberg’s Legacy
Gutenberg’s techniques, used without any substantial change until the end of the nineteenth century; profoundly changed society. Because information could be mass produced, the wealthy no longer had exclusive access to it. Further, information could be disseminated quickly across wide areas, even across continents.
Much in demand, Gutenberg’s new printing techniques spread quickly, blazing a trail of entrepreneurial success across Europe. Fust continued printing in Mainz with his soninlaw Peter Schöffer who had apprenticed under Gutenberg; printing quickly spread from Mainz through the rest of Germany. By 1470 Venice was the center of a flourishing printing trade and by 1475 printing had spread to England and France. The desire for printed matter also spread to all levels of society. By the mid1500s printers produced material targeted at the illiterate population, including illustrated calendars and broadsides.
The new printing methods allowed the ideas of the Renaissance to spread quickly. In fact, some scholars suggest that the Renaissance would have been stillborn without the invention of movable type printing. Gutenberg’s methods were instrumental in the spread of the Reformation as well. Luther printed massive quantities of broadsides and pamphlets explaining his reform efforts, which could be reprinted as soon as needed. One of Luther’s tracts promoting “justification by faith alone” was printed seven times in one year to keep up with demand. By the 1530s, Lutheran catechisms were printed, which teachers used to educate children in the Lutheran program of Christian beliefs.
The extended results of Gutenberg’s inventions were dramatic as well. Spelling and grammar were more easily standardized, literacy increased, mass education was made possible, and ideas spread rapidly throughout all levels of society. Of course, these effects progressed slowly across centuries and proceeded from concomitant cultural and social changes. Nevertheless, none of it could have happened without Gutenberg’s invention.
Johannes Gutenberg – c. 14001468