Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg is generally credited with the simultaneous invention of movable metal typefaces as well as the concept of mass production through the use of a printing press. The invention of printing using a form of durable and movable type would eventually serve the needs of the masses. It was to be hailed as one of the most important and influential catalysts affecting the course of human interaction and history.
Sparse local history and records have been handed down that make much of the private history and life of Gutenberg unknown and hypothetical. But records do reveal that Gutenberg was born into a Europe prime for a cultural revolution. Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, in 1397, when Europe had recently come out of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was just beginning.
He was baptized at the church of Saint Christoph and lived in a large house that his father Friele had inherited from the family of Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. Historical records support he was born into a patrician family. His father was one of four accountants in the city of Mainz. His mother, Else Wirich, was the second wife of Friele and the daughter of a wealthy Mainz merchant. 1414 records indicate Johannes was probably the youngest child, as a Friele and Else are mentioned as an older brother and sister. Into this patrician atmosphere, the Gutenberg children would have had some schooling or private instruction and would have enjoyed the pride of a self-confident and well-respected family.
There is nothing to indicate that Gutenberg as a young man had any leanings toward the church, political life, or scholarly study, but later records indicate he did have a talent for technology— especially a familiarity and skill with metal working and manufacture.
Records indicate his relatives belonged to a guild or fellowship of coiners that supplied metal for the minting of coins for the church. But because he and his brother could not pass the necessary ancestral test, he never assumed this career. After his father’s death in 1417, he later left for the city of Strasberg, Germany, and took up residence. Records indicate he lived on an income from annuities, paid taxes to the city of Strasberg, but never became one of its citizens. City tax lists enter him as either semipatrician, semi-craftsman, or as one who serves under no other individual. The influence from his contact with metal working translated into his becoming an independent craftsman. He ran a respected workshop, from which he was able to augment his living expenses by teaching a variety of handicrafts.
Court records also indicate he was quite active in pursuing court matters regarding errant family annuities from the city of Mainz as well as a vexing case involving a breach of promise to marry a patrician girl. However, no clear records exist indicating he was ever married.
In 1439, court records provide information about his involvement in a business venture to supply cast metal objects. It is in these records a reference surfaces to a “secret art” involving “something to do with printing.” Unfortunately, no written records by Gutenberg himself have ever been produced, but historical records indirectly reveal his persistent involvement with perfecting this new process.
Gutenberg moved back to Mainz and set up his workshop, eventually borrowing large sums of money to finance his laborious venture. Not long after, between 1452 and 1455, he printed about 200 copies of his famous masterpiece, the hand-cast 42-line Gutenberg Bible. However, a judicial hearing regarding his loans and debts resulted in the ultimate loss of his business and its eventual takeover. He died in Mainz around February 3, 1468. The process of printing he perfected, however, was to spread and become a major influence on Europe by the end of the 15th century.
Gutenberg’s process of producing printed material for the masses through the use of a printing press using movable type established itself in major urban centers in Europe within the first few decades of the 1500s. By the end of the 1500s, the reproduction of written materials had moved from the scriptoria (scribal desk) and well-organized book trade guilds to that of the printer’s craft shop. This resulted in fundamental changes to society. A mainly scribal society became a typographical one. Average copies of early printing editions ranged between 200 to 1,000 copies, compared with a single book that took a scribe nearly a month or, depending on its complexity, a year or more to complete.
Prior to printing, scholars had great difficulty in accessing uniform data, especially concerning chronologies, maps, tables, diagrams, and other reference guides common today. Library collections were subject to contradiction and corruption after subsequent editions were copied over the course of time. Print publishing slowly evolved within these confines and conventions of the day. Old scribal systems and technologies eventually petrified, giving way to the emergence of new occupational groups, including type founders, correctors, typographers, indexers, translators, copy editors, illustrators, print dealers as well as the expansion of new commercial centers and related industries such as paper making, ink production, and marketing. Cross-cultural exchanges within these groups stimulated new forms of enlightenment and intellectual ferment. By the end of the 15th century, the expertise of medievalists had given way to the beginnings of the modern era.
A commercial revolution resulted as other closely interrelated changes began to affect the entire fabric of man and society. Market demands shifted to meet the demand for books. The revolution of having knowledge, references, and reliable resources available had a direct bearing on the economic, historical, political, legal, technological, and educational developments of society. The correction of false and erroneous data, especially pertaining to a wide range of reference materials, medical and scientific data, and so on, was enormous. The ability to cross-reference and compare texts resulted in the formation and dissemination of new ideas and thinking. Religious ideologies, educational opportunities, exploration to new lands, major discoveries, and the Renaissance itself began to reflect the impact printing began to have on society.
In particular, this sharing and discussion of facts, concepts, perspectives, and discoveries related to scientific research in the 19th century resulted in the publication of major books in biology, physical anthropology, and archaeology as well as specific ethnographic studies in the social sciences. In academic books and professional journals, topics ranged from geology and paleontology to ethnology and linguistics. The publication of such works paved the way for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which both revolutionized the conception of humankind and life forms in natural history and inspired new areas of scientific research from primatology to psychology.
While there have been many waves of change that have had far-reaching effects on society, we can hardly imagine their impact without Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing. Johannes Gutenberg’s collaboration helped solve one of the most vexing problems of man’s persistent compulsions—to communicate easily, cheaply, permanently, and quickly. Thanks to Gutenberg, the invention of movable type became one of the most far-reaching technological achievements in history, and our achievements today can trace their roots back to his genius.
- Eisenstein, E. (1983). The printing revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Geck, E. (1968). Johannes Gutenberg. Berlin: Briider Hartmann.
- Johns, A. (1998). The nature of the book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.