Printing The Way - The Origin and Impact of Gutenberg’s Printing Press

October 27, 2016

Printing The Way - The Origin and Impact of Gutenberg’s Printing Press

We live in the Information Age, where computers, digitization and the Internet rule, and infinite knowledge is literally at our fingertips as long as we have access to a decent WiFi signal and have a computer or smartphone handy. 

Take a moment to imagine a world without these modern electronic conveniences, plus no bookstores, magazine stands, newspapers, posters, or brochures. It’s tough to even comprehend such a dull and dumb existence, and yet so easy to take our 24/7 access to knowledge for granted. There was a time in human history, only several hundred years ago, when this reality existed for most people except royalty, nobility and religious persons. Essentially, only those who could afford incredibly expensive, handwritten or woodblock printed books had access to the novelty of reading and learning.

Contrary to popular belief, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany neither invented the printing process nor the concept of movable type - China and Korea got the ball rolling a thousand years earlier. But, he did revolutionize existing printing methods and created a mechanical printing press with movable type - individually cast metal letters and characters - which made mass printing possible and efficient for the first time in human history. 

Although not much is known about Gutenberg’s early life, historical records from Mainz do show that he apprenticed for a goldsmith and spent some time inventing. Gutenberg had experience with the craft of bookmaking and after taking out several loans, experimented with the printing process after a failed attempt to sell metal mirrors around 1430.  

Gutenberg reimagined several elements of existing printing methods, including a new design of the press itself, the ink recipe used, and invented metal letter molds for the movable type. His new press was modeled after the olive and grape screw-type wooden presses used around Europe at the time to make olive oil and wine. In place of the water-based ink that was used in earlier woodblock printing, Gutenberg concocted an oil-based ink out of linseed oil, resin and soot that would adhere better to paper with a richer black color. 

His most notable contribution to the printing process was his invention of metal molds and a matrix used to cast individual characters or “sorts” of movable type. This video brilliantly sums up his technique of filing the end of a metal shaft to form a letter or character, punching the letter into a softer metal to form a mold and then attaching the mold to a two-part matrix that was filled with a cheap alloy of lead, tin and antimony to cast each piece of type. 

Ever hear the terms “uppercase” and “lowercase” used to describe letters? In between printings, Gutenberg and his workers stored capital letters in the upper case of the printing press, as they were utilized less often than the small letters, which were kept in the lower case, hence the origin of these common phrases! Each piece of metal type could be rearranged to form an infinite number of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and pages of text. And although the process of arranging the type was time consuming and tedious, numerous copies of the same page could be printed at an exceedingly faster rate than any other form of printing technology in existence. So began the age of mass-produced printing.          

It took Gutenberg several years to perfect his mechanical printing press and casting technique, but by 1448, he was operating his own printer’s workshop in Mainz. In order to finance the tools and materials needed to sustain his endeavors, including a project to print and sell numerous copies of The Bible, Gutenberg borrowed a large sum of money from a local wealthy businessman, Johann Fust. By 1455, Gutenberg, with the help of 20 workshop staff, completed 180 copies of his famous “42-line Bible” which were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair that same year. Each 2-volume book was comprised of 1,282 pages and sold for 30 florins, approximately three years’ wages for an average clerk.    

Soon after this monumental accomplishment, Gutenberg was floundering in debt. Unable to repay Fust’s hefty loan, the financier sued Gutenberg for lack of repayment. Though Gutenberg himself died a poor man on a pension from the Archbishop of Mainz in 1468, his printing press and techniques spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Check out this super cool interactive map, “The Atlas of Early Printing” to see just how quickly his invention took hold around the continent. By 1500, it is estimated that 500,000 books were circulating from country to country and Gutenberg’s efficient printing press is credited as having played a massive role in the rise of the Renaissance, The Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. In fact, in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a German church therein beginning the Protestant Reformation, he had several more copies printed for greater dissemination of information.

Gutenberg’s printing press design was so functional and efficient that it went mostly unchanged by printers up until the 19th century when the advent of the steam-powered printing press rendered Gutenberg’s design obsolete.

It could be argued that Gutenberg’s printing press launched the original Information Age, as his creation made it possible to efficiently mass-produce written materials, lowered the cost of books for less-wealthy families over time and offered a fairly simple and replicable printing process that could be easily taught to others. No matter which aspect you choose to highlight about Gutenberg’s printing press, one hugely important fact remains evident – the invention of the printing press inarguably and indefinitely altered the course of human history and the way we share information and learn. And for that, we should be forever grateful.

Every book that has ever been or ever will be printed owes thanks to Gutenberg’s innovation, perseverance, and desire to transmit knowledge to the masses. So, put down your Kindle, pick up a real-life printed book and celebrate the invention and inventor that changed the course of history for us all!  

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