Johannes Gutenberg was the inventor who introduced printing to Europe in the 15th century. His achievement has since been recognised as the most important invention of the millennium.
Gutenberg’s mechanical printing started the Printing Revolution and was estimated to have boosted the European book output to around one billion copies within four centuries.
Little is known about his childhood, although historians believe he was born circa 1395 to 1400 in Mainz, Germany. The son of a well-to-do merchant Friele and his wife Else, officials in Mainz have declared his date of birth to be 24th June 1400.
His father worked for the ecclesiastical mint and Gutenberg learned the trade of goldsmithing but it was his pioneering work in printing and publishing that led to his fame after his death.
As a student he was well-travelled, going to Switzerland, Italy and Holland. He had a thirst for reading and a desire to spread the word of the Lord.
Although the earliest known form of printing – Chinese woodblock printing – dated from around 220AD, it was Gutenberg’s mechanical, moveable-type printing that revolutionised the industry in the 15th century. The idea was born when he studied a piece of wood with letters carved into it, wrapped in parchment. Sap from the greenwood had imprinted the shape of the letters on to the parchment. He envisaged inventing a machine that would print God’s word.
At this time, he had a workshop in Strassburg where he fashioned tools and repeatedly tried to build an effective printing press. He engraved the moveable types in wood and endeavoured to cast them in metals including lead, antimony and tin, working out how to transfer the letters into words, phrases and lines to appear on the paper.
He invented coloured ink – made of linseed oil and soot – and brushes to spread it on to the letters. He adapted the screw mechanism found in wine presses and linen presses to develop his printing press, with boards and screws to hold the letters and weights to compress them. He invested all his money in his experiments and there were some failures and frustrations before he finally developed a model press.
Initially, he kept his work under wraps but in 1436, Gutenberg finally enlisted the help of skilled craftsman, Conrad Saspach, to create a full-sized version of his scale model. Historians believe the first full-size printing press was produced in around 1440.
The first book printed was the Bible. Completed in 1455, it was available in several editions. Initially, fewer than 200 copies were printed and around 50 have survived today – some of which are on display in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
In 1978, a copy of Gutenberg’s Bible was purchased for more than $2.2 million – the highest price ever paid for a book – at Christie’s by Japanese buyer Eiichi Kobayashi. It was believed to be the only copy in Japan and was put on public display.
The second book printed was Psalter in 1457, the first book to be printed in red and black. It was also the first book to contain the publication date. Four copies are known to survive today.
At the time of his death, Gutenberg’s work was relatively unknown, although in 1465 his achievements were recognised by archbishop Adolph von Nassau, who awarded him the Hofmann title – meaning gentleman of the court.
After Gutenberg’s death in 1468, his printing technology spread quickly across Europe, creating a printing revolution. Centuries later, there are many statues of Gutenberg across Germany, including one by Bertel Thorvaldsen that was erected in 1837 in Mainz. The Gutenberg Museum and the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz were named in his honour.
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