Biography of Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg Photo:, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Gutenberg was an inventor and craftsman from Germany who developed the first printing press in Europe with movable type, in 1438, revolutionizing printing, books, and communication in Europe. His invention brought about a whole new world of sharing information and literature and informed the Renaissance, Reformation, and humanist movements.

His many innovative and ground-breaking contributions to printing include the following: the invention of the process to produce movable type on a mass scale, the invention of an oil-based ink with which to print books, mechanical movable type, adjustable moulds, and a wooden printing press.

Gutenberg created Europe’s first ever book printed using movable type, the “Forty-Two-Line” Bible, in around 1455. It was the first ever printed version of the Bible and has been celebrated for its amazing aesthetics and its high technical quality. About 180 copies of the bible, on vellum, were printed.

Gutenberg is often described as the "man of the millennium", is one of the most influential figures in our history and has a museum founded in his honour, the Gutenberg Museum in his hometown of Mainz, Germany, which opened on the 400th anniversary of his death.

Early Life

Gutenberg was born into a modest merchant family in Mainz, Germany, a well-to-do city on the Rhine, around 1395; the third son born to Freile zum Gensfleisch and his second wife, Else Wirick zum Gutenberg. His father was a merchant and a patrician, assumed to be in the cloth trade; his mother the daughter of a shopkeeper – Johann later adopted her maiden name.

There are no surviving documents detailing Gutenberg’s early years, but as the son of a patrician, it was expected he would have had an education in reading and perhaps a knowledge of Latin, as it was a criterion to attend university. He may have also initially followed a religious career, as was common for a patrician’s youngest son, and he may have been on course to attend the brotherhood at St. Victor’s, south of the city.

Adventures in Printing

Gutenberg later lived in Strasbourg, France. The move happened after a craftsman revolt occurred in Mainz in 1428, against the noble class, and the Gutenberg family found themselves exiled. Settling in Strasbourg, France, Gutenberg began experimenting in printing. The craftsman was already a practised bookmaker, and it was here he was able to perfect small metal type, which was far more practical than the carving of entire wooden printing blocks. With movable metal type, each type could be a single letter or character. In fact, movable type had been created hundreds of years earlier, in East Asia, but Gutenberg invented an innovation that developed a new casting system and the use of metal alloys which could make production much easier.

There is a gap in historian’s records between 1444 and 1448, but they agree that by 1448 Gutenberg was back in Mainz, taking out a loan from his brother-in-law, Arnold Gelthus, almost certainly to buy a printing press equipment and materials. Around this time, it is surmised that he knew the craft of intaglio printing and had worked on making copper engravings alongside a craftsman called the “Master of Playing Cards”.

Gutenberg’s method involved metal alloy and hand moulds. The alloy he created was a mix of tin, lead, and antimony that he discovered would readily melt at a relatively low temperature, cool quickly, and allow for a quicker and a much more economical form of casting. It also cast effectively, and the type it made was very durable and reusable. He also invented an ink which was oil-based. This could be made thick enough to adhere very effectively to the metal type and also transfer with great success to paper or vellum. Gutenberg’s new press, which historical scholars believe he derived from presses already in existence for the production of paper, wine, or oil, could apply a firm and even pressure to various types of printing surfaces. The European technique up until that time had seen woodblock printing only, or the much more basic stamping of letters onto surfaces.

The press was in full operation by 1450, with Gutenberg running a small print shop, and a printing had been done of a German poem, possibly the first item ever to be printed on Gutenberg’s new press. The inventor now needed investment. He was able to secure a loan of 800 guilders from a wealthy businessman named Johann Fust to fund the very specific tools and equipment that he required for his new printing method. Fust’s son-in-law-to-be, Peter Schöffer, also came on board and got involved with this new printing enterprise. Peter Schöffer had previously worked as a scribe in Paris, and it is believed he may have designed some of the early typefaces of the press.

Financial Trouble

There was trouble ahead, however. By the December of 1452, Gutenberg found himself heavily in debt and in the unfortunate position of being unable to pay back the loan to Fust. The only solution was to have a new agreement drawn up, whereby Fust became a partner in Gutenberg’s business. More bad fortune ensued, though, and by 1455, Gutenberg was sadly still not in a position to pay back the debt and Fust sued him. Court records from the time are scant, but scholars believe that during the period in which the trial took place, Gutenberg printed his renowned masterpiece, the "Forty-Two-Line" Bible, which we now know as the Gutenberg Bible.

Fust won the case and then gained ownership of the type for both the Bible it had printed and for Gutenberg’s second masterpiece, a Psalter. He also claimed other printing equipment of Gutenberg’s. He carried on printing, using all of Gutenberg’s materials, aided by his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer, who had testified against Gutenberg in the 1455 trial. A fine Psalter, printed in Mainz on August 14, 1457, lists Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer as printers, but the legacy of Johann Gutenberg, and all he achieved, is his own. Guttenberg’s invention was not only a revolution; it was history-changing.