Big John Gutenberg & the Printing Press

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1398-1468) was a man of many talents. Known as a blacksmith, a goldsmith, a printer, an engraver, a publisher, and an inventor in his native Germany, his greatest contribution to the world was the mechanical, moving-type printing press. Introduced to Renaissance Europe in the mid-1400s, his printing press ushered in the era of mass communication and permanently altered the structure of society.

Full-Court Press

Johannes Gutenberg began working on this printing press in approximately 1436, in partnership with Andreas Dritzehn and Andreas Heilmann, a gem cutter and a paper mill owner, respectively.

Gutenberg’s experience as a goldsmith served him well, as his knowledge of metals alloyed him to create a new alloy of tin, lead, and antimony that proved crucial to producing durable, high-quality printed books. His special alloy proved far better suited to printing than all other materials available at the time.

He also developed a unique method of quickly and accurately molding new type blocks from a uniform template. Using this process, Gutenberg produced over 290 separate letter boxes (a letter box being a single letter or symbol), including myriad special characters, punctuation marks, and the like.

Gutenberg’s printing press itself consisted of a screw press that was mechanically modified to produce over 3,500 printed pages per day. The press could print with equal quality and speed on both paper and vellum. Printing was done with a special oil-based ink Gutenberg developed himself, which proved more durable than previous water-based inks. The vast majority of printed materials from Gutenberg’s press were in simple black, though a few examples of colored printing do exist.

A copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California

One of the surviving Gutenberg Bibles, Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Changing the World

The moveable-type printing press is considered the most important invention of the second millennium CE, as well as the defining moment of the Renaissance period. It sparked the so-called “Printing Revolution,” enabling the mass production of printed books.

By the 16th Century, printing presses based on Gutenberg’s invention could be found in over 200 cities spanning 12 European countries. More than 200 million books had been printed by that time. The 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first and most famous book Gutenberg himself ever printed, are considered the most valuable books in the world.

Literacy, learning, and education throughout Europe rose dramatically, fueled by the now relatively free flow of information. This information included revolutionary ideas that reached the peasants and middle class, and threatened the power monopoly of the ruling class. The Print Revolution gave rise to what would become the news media, and was the key component in the gradual democratization of knowledge.

Photo credit: armadillo444 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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