Can you imagine life without a printing machine? Books would have to be written by hand. If you made a mistake, you would have to start that page all over. People actually had to do this whenever they wanted a copy of a book until one man made it easier for us to copy books.
Johann Gutenberg invented the type mold, which made printing from movable metallic type practical for the first time. The invention assured an adequate supply of the letters that were uniformly cast on equal metal bodies. Gutenberg and others used his invention to produce books in Mainz, Germany, during the mid-1400’s.
Inspired by Books
Johann was born in Mainz, a member of the very wealthy Gensfleisch family, although he used his mother last name. As a young boy, Gutenberg loved to read and fortunately there were many books in his home, and Johann knew how to read. After he read all of his father’s books, he borrowed others from his parents’ friends. The nearby monastery also had books he could read, the most precious ones were chained to reading tables. Most books in the 1400’s were about religion, philosophy, law and other similar topics. Six hundred years ago, there were no books written for children. Since Johann’s family was wealthy, they were able to buy books. These books were called manuscripts, a Latin word meaning "written by hand". All books were copied down with pen and ink, letter by letter. Manuscript books sometimes took a long time to make and could be very expensive. Six hundred years ago, a luxury book might be worth as much as a good-sized farm.
How Books Were Made
Besides buying books from traders, Johann’s father paid local copyists, called scribes, to copy texts by hand. When the text was finished, the scribe handed the buyer a set of loose sheets covered with neat handwriting. The loose pages were made of calf, sheep, or goatskins called parchment or vellum.
Before the sheets of parchment became a book, many more craftspeople did their work. Johann, anxious to read every new book his father ordered, followed each step. The loose sheets first went to the rubricator, or the "red inker." The rubicator wrote chapter titles and section headings in red to make them stand out from the black letters of the text.
Next, Johann’s father might give the pages to an artist called an illuminator. Illuminators decorated the margins with miniature scenes, geometric designs, or borders of leaves and flowers. The final step was a trip to the bindery. The binder sewed the loose sheets of parchment together and bound them between wooden boards. At the bindery, workers also covered the boards with cloth, leather, or perhaps even gold, silver and carved ivory.
Johann grew impatient waiting for books to be finished. He wished for a faster way to make them. A scribe spent weeks copying a book. Then, by the time the rubicator, illuminator and binder did their jobs, several months might pass. There must be a better way, Johann thought, and some day he would figure it out.
Making Money and Jewelry
In the meantime, he had other things, like school to think about. At school Johann used the name Gutenberg. The Gensfleisch family was a large one, and several men in Mainz were named Johann Gensfleisch. When Johann was thirteen his family moved to Eltville, seven miles from Mainz. When he was sixteen he finished school. He then went to work at the Mainz mint with his father. Besides coining money for Mainz, the mint made government seals and other gold and silver objects such as jewelry and picture frames. Johann learned all he could from the goldsmiths and jewelers at the Mainz mint.
Inventing Molded Letters
Learning to create objects such as coins and jewelry gave Johann an idea. As a jeweler, Gutenberg frequently carved initials into stones. These were used as seals to stamp initials in the soft wax that had been dropped on a document. Sometimes ink would be rubbed on a seal. Then the initials could be stamped onto paper. It occurred to Gutenberg that if he had a large number of separate carved letters, they could be moved around and made up into words or sentences on pages. He noticed that it would take a very long time to carve from metal all of the letters he would need, so at first he carved his letters from wood. By pressing the wooden letters into sand and then pouring liquid metal into the spaces that had been made in the sand, he was able to make as many molded letters as he wanted.
Sand casting did not work very well with letters. Johann went through all the steps for making jewelry. But when the metal hardened and he lifted the letters from the sand, they were so imperfect he had to rework them with a knife.
Johann was even more disappointed when he lined up the metal letters to form words. He spread ink evenly over the letters, put the scrap of parchment on the inky surface, and pressed hard so the letters would press onto the parchment. But no matter how careful he was, the letters came out crooked on the printed page. He had to find a better way to make his idea work.
Gutenberg next tried hammering the letters into lead instead of sand. He then used the lead as a mold for casting the type to be used in printing. These letters worked better because they didn’t need so much polishing or rework as those cast in sand. But the type was still soft and got battered in the press, like the brass and earlier metals he tried. Johann spent more time making type than he did printing. He tried different mixtures of tin and lead in his types to make them better, finally settling on a mixture of lead and antimony. After nearly 30 years working on his invention and experiments, in about 1450 Johann printed his first book. This book was in Latin and told how to make speeches. The book was made up of 28 pages printed separately, so the buyers had to bind them together themselves.
Printing the First Book
Johann was pleased with his success and began work on printing a Bible. This work was difficult and expensive due to the amount and cost of the equipment (presses, type, metal, and paper) and the workers involved and Gutenberg ran out of money. In 1455, a banker named Johann Fust, who had been loaning Gutenberg money to live on and finance his inventions, sued him Gutenberg and took his type, press, tools, his paper and the almost completed Bibles. The banker gave Gutenberg’s equipment to a die-cutter named Peter Schöpffer, who had worked as Gutenberg’s assistant and who went on to make improvements in the methods of casting type.
How the Printing Press Changed the World
Printed books began to be in demand all over Europe and by 1470 Gutenberg’s invention had spread to 14 cities in Europe. Between 1470 and 1480 more than 100 cities set up printing presses. By 1500, more than nine million books had been printed and could be found all over western Europe. Gutenberg’s invention allowed ideas and knowledge to be shared and spread because many copies of a book could now be made in a short period of time. He also brought the joy he found in reading to millions of other people who otherwise could not have afforded a book, because printed books cost so much less than the manuscripts that were made before.
Johann Gutenberg was later given a post at the court of the Archbishop of Mainz in about 1465, including a pension, since the archbishop was proud of Johann’s contributions to the church (in his Bible) and the town of Mainz. Johann lived the last three years of his life in comfort and security before he died at about 70 years old in 1468.
Peter Schöffer and others later credited Johann Gutenberg with inventing printing as he rightly deserved.
Johann Gutenberg Timeline
This website is designed to be viewed using Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.