Johannes Gutenberg: c. 1398 – 1468

Bust of Johannes Gutenberg outside the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany

The known details of Johannes Gutenberg’s life are few and far between. With documentary evidence quite meager after 600 years, there are many gaps in his biography. Due to the lack of information, a mythology has been built up about Gutenberg that (1) his ideas about printing came to him “like a ray of light,” (2) that he was a failed businessman and (3) he died in poverty. None of this is true.

What is known is that Gutenberg left Mainz in 1430 due to political conflicts between the patricians and the guilds. Gutenburg, himself a patrician with an inclination toward the guild members, was owed considerable sums by the local government. It is likely that Gutenberg began his project in 1439 while living in Strasbourg. Far from it coming to him in an instant, Gutenberg worked on what he called his “secret enterprise” for some ten years before it was complete and ready for commercial production. The processes involved in the technique were complex and expensive and would have required numerous approaches and attempts. Among them were:
1.) Typeface design
2.) Engraving of patrices
3.) Manufacture of matrices
4.) Creation of the manual metal typecaster
5.) Composition of metal alloys
6.) Ink formulation
7.) Experiments with paper and parchment
8.) The construction of the wooden press machinery

By far the most significant of these, was (4) the invention of the handheld mold for casting metal type. While I was at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany in June 2008, I asked if any of the original casting devices were existent and was told that none had been preserved; the ones that were in the museum were recreations from information available about how they were constructed. This information did not include any drawings or schematics. Below is a video of a demonstration given by the museum on Gutenberg’s invention.

It is believed that Gutenberg returned to Mainz in 1448 and it was around this time that the process was finalized and live projects could be produced with his invention. In 1449-50, Gutenberg secured an investment from Johannes Fust and the two became partners, opening the first commercial printing establishment in the world. A rented facility was located, new presses were built, a staff was hired and trained, materials were procured and stored for the purpose of producing the 42-line Bibles that are well-known.

In 1455, there was a business dispute between the two men and Fust sued Gutenberg in court on charges of refusal to pay interest on his loan and embezzlement. In a complex ruling, the court issued an order for Gutenberg to pay a portion of what Fust demanded and the two parted company. The legal dispute with Fust certainly set Gutenberg back as he was unable to pay immediately. Fust kept the Bible inventory, opened up his own printing facility and took the most skilled employee of the firm (Peter Schöffer) with him. However, Gutenberg was not ruined and he continued to work energetically on the development of his technique … he just had a competitor down the road, another first in the industry.

It is believed that Gutenberg continued to produce Bibles and other products such as calendars and letters of indulgence. In 1465, the archbishop of Mainz, Adolf von Nassau, appointed Gutenberg as “gentleman of the court” in recognition for his achievements which he enjoyed until his death in 1468. His invention spread rapidly throughout Europe, led to an tremendous expansion of literacy and is considered a key element in the Renaissance.


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