Geeking out on Gutenberg

Photo by Ernst Zeeh,

Today we return to the Renaissance (c.1350 AD to 1600 AD) with a closer look at Johannes Gensfleisch de Gutenberg (c.1397 to 1468) and his groundbreaking invention, the printing press.  Prior to the printing press, books were rare, expensive and inaccessible to the working class. Scribes were trained and hired to perform the painstaking task of copying books, legal documents and any printed order of business word by word, line by line.  Gutenberg and his amazing machine put an end to this carpal-tunnel-syndrome prone profession.

Born in Mainz, Germany, we know little of Gutenberg’s personal life (few books, no internet). His father was a nobleman, his mother came from the merchant class, and young Johannes trained to be a skilled metal worker. After his mother’s death in 1433, he moved to Strasbourg, France.  He used his inheritance to manufacture and sell holy mirrors, a religious souvenir, to those making a pilgrimage to Aachen, Germany.  During this time, he also began work on his famous movable type printing press.  He sought the investment of three venture capitalists, swore them to secrecy, then rolled up his sleeves and got to work.  After several years the partnership collapsed and Gutenberg moved back to Mainz in the late 1440s. It is unclear how much progress was made on his press.

Next, he borrowed money from a relative and formed a partnership with a new investor, Wolfgang Fust. Several more years ticked by and in 1455 Gutenberg and his team printed the now famous, Gutenberg Bible. Reaching this milestone, however, required ingenuity, patience, secrecy and money. Not only did Gutenberg design and build the actual machine, he also manufactured the movable type, created special oil-based ink, and figured out the best material to print on.

Photo by Willi Heidelbach,

Unfortunately, there are no diagrams or surviving Gutenberg presses.  Based on subsequent versions, historians believe it was made primarily of wood and fashioned after a wine press—Mainz is in the heart of German wine country.  The movable type is by far the most radical and creative component of Gutenberg’s press.  Comprised of individual letters and symbols cast in metal, they were arranged on a matrix to create the desired text.  They remind me of the metal keys on a typewriter, except Gutenberg had to have enough on hand to create an entire page of text.  He also had to create a special oil-based ink since a water-based version would have dripped off the metal type and left a wet, blobby mess.

Photo by Sandid,

Once the machine was complete, Gutenberg wanted the best material to show off his work, and at the time the best meant vellum (calf’s skin). However, acquiring enough vellum to print just one 1,200+ page bible required a substantial amount of moo and moolah.  In the end, only a handful of his bibles were printed on vellum, the rest were printed on good old paper.

Gutenberg’s press began cranking out bibles, books and other printed works, and the world was forever transformed.  Scribes became a profession of the past and others quickly created their own versions of Gutenberg’s press.  Over twenty million machine-printed books were created in just 50 years time.  Books and knowledge were accessible to everyone. There was a boom in literacy, curiosity, exploration, invention, in other words, Europe experienced a rebirth or Renaissance.

Unfortunately, Gutenberg and Fust had a major falling out.  Court documents indicate Fust sued for repayment on his investment, but Gutenberg didn’t have the cash. Instead, he was forced to turn over his printing press and half his supply of bibles to Fust.  If that weren’t enough, Fust also poached Gutenberg’s workshop.  With the help of family and friends, Gutenberg set up a new shop and went on to print the Mainz Psalter, and other minor works, but his invention never made him rich.

If you’d like to geek out on Gutenberg—and I highly recommend that you do—check out Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press (2009) from BBC Four.  You can also virtually turn the pages of the Gutenberg Bible courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Fun Illuminating Facts:  Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of his famous 42-line bible. His moveable type press printed the initial black and white type.  Subsequently, key pages were decorated (read: hand painted) by an illuminator.  Click on this virtual copy of the Gutenberg Bible, to feast your eyes on this beautiful artwork.

Photo by Alexis El Caminante,

Fun Inky Facts: The Diamond Sutra (868 AD) is the first complete book published by the block ink print method. Text for each page was hand-carved into a block of wood, dipped in ink, and pressed by hand onto the page.  Published in China, the Diamond Sutra was given its title by none other than Buddha.  He claimed the teachings within will “cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting”.  Click on this link to view the Diamond Sutra courtesy of the British Library.

History Bites is off to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and will be back in two weeks.  Wishing you a fun and relaxing holiday 🙂


BBC Four

British Library

Gutenberg Museum

Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas-Austin

Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries

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