- Engineering & Materials
- Gutenberg, Johannes (c.1398–1468)
Gutenberg, Johannes (c.1398–1468)
German printer who invented moveable type, often regarded as one of the most significant technical developments of all time.
Gutenberg was born in Mainz, a small town on the Rhine. Much of the information available about Gutenberg is controversial and his exact birthdate is not known, although it is believed to have been between 1394 and 1399. He served an apprenticeship as a goldsmith, but his interest soon turned to printing. In partnership with his friend Andreas Dritzehn he set up a printing firm in Strasbourg some time in the late 1430s. Dritzehn died soon afterward, and his brother sued for admission to the partnership in his place. Gutenberg was exposed to legal proceedings and from evidence given during the hearing it is thought that the two men may have already invented moveable type by 1438, although no printed work has survived to substantiate this assumption.
Gutenberg returned to Mainz and persuaded the goldsmith and financier Johann Fust to lend him the money to set up a new press. With the security of financial backing he produced the so-called Gutenberg Bible, now regarded as the first major work to come from a printing press. His security was short-lived, however, when Fust brought a lawsuit to recover his loan. In November 1455 Gutenberg's printing offices were taken over in lieu of payment, and Fust installed his son-in-law Peter Schoeffer to operate the press.
Gutenberg may or may not have set up another press. Certainly an edition of Johann Balbus' Catholicon printed in Mainz in 1460 is often attributed to him, along with other lesser works. In 1462 Mainz was involved in a local feud, and in the upheaval Gutenberg was expelled from the city for five years before being reinstated, offered a pension, and given tax exemption. He died there on February 3, 1468.
The art of printing using moveable type is thought to have been originally invented nearly four centuries earlier in China, then a much more advanced civilization, but was unknown in the western world until the work of Gutenberg. Previously books had to be printed by the laborious method of carving out each page individually on a wood block, and this meant that only the very wealthy were able to afford them. Gutenberg made his type individually, so that each letter was interchangeable. After a page had been printed, the type could be disassembled and used again. He punched and engraved a steel character (letter shape) into a piece of copper to form a mold, which he then filled with molten type metal. The letters were in the Gothic style, nearest to the handwriting of the day, and of equal height.
Using paper made from cloth rags and vellum sheets he printed the famous “42-line” (42 lines to a column) Gutenberg Bible, thought to be the first major work to come from a press of this kind. There are 47 surviving copies of the book, of which 12 are printed on vellum. Many bear no printer's name or date, but from evidence found in two copies in the Paris Library it is concluded that they were on sale before August 1456. By 1500 more than 180 European towns had working presses of this kind, including William Caxton's in Westminster, London, set up in 1476.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.