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Johannes Gutenberg

inventor of the type mold

Johann Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, sometime around 1395, a member of the aristocratic Gensfleisch family (he used his mother's name). At the time of his birth, Mainz was a center for the goldsmith and jewelry industries, and one of his uncles was master of the archiepiscopal mint. His family supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and participated in forgery trials.

Sometime in his youth Gutenberg moved to Strasbourg, where he joined the goldsmiths' guild. Among the trades he taught his pupils were gem-polishing, the manufacture of looking-glasses, and the art of printing. He also carried on experiments aimed at improving the printing process. He returned to Mainz sometime around 1444.

Contrary to popular stories, Gutenberg did not invent printing, or even movable type. The Chinese and Koreans had been printing text and pictures cut on woodblocks for over a thousand years, and both had invented movable types made of porcelain and metal. But because both languages are quite complicated and require so many types to print, neither culture perfected the process. Neither did Gutenberg introduce movable type or printing to Europe, as both were in limited use by the time of his birth. However, the process of printing at his time required printers to literally solder the individual type letters onto a solid block, meaning that new type had to be created for every single page of print. What's more, each individual piece of type had to be crafted by hand. This made printed books extremely expensive, and therefore very rare.

The type mold that Gutenberg perfected made printing from movable type practical for the first time. The letter patterns were cut on small steel rods called patrices, and the dies thus made were impressed on soft metal to produce the matrices, which were then cast in the mold in such a manner as to form the "face" and "body" of the type in one operation. This process assured an adequate supply of the letters, which were uniformly cast on equal metal bodies It also allowed him to reproduce even the most intricate calligraphic type styles, as well as handwriting. Gutenberg also prepared two markedly different forms of each letter, the normal separate form, and the compound or linked form which when joined closely to the type next to it allowed him to always leave the same amount of space between vertical columns of text, and to insure that each line of text would be straight and of a uniform height.

In 1450, Gutenberg formed a partnership with Johann Fust of Mainz for the purpose of printing the so-called "42-line Bible," a task which was completed between 1453-1455. Fust then sued Gutenberg to recover the 2000 gulden he had advanced for the task, and obtained judgement for that amount plus interest. Because Gutenberg was unable to pay the debt, he was forced to turn the machinery and type with which he had printed the Bible over to Fust. The "Gutenberg Bible" with which many are familiar today (shown at left) was actually printed by Fust and his associate Peter Schöffer. This Bible included new type in two sizes, as well as the elaborate initial letters, which were created using a process for two-color printing developed by Fust and Schöffer.

the Gutenberg Bible

Little is known about how Gutenberg spent the rest of his life. He is known to have spent his last years in the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, but in what capacity is unknown. He probably died at Mainz towards the end of 1467 or the beginning of 1468, and is believed to have been buried in the Franciscan church there (neither the church nor its associated cemetery exist today).


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The Robinson Library >> Printing History

This page was last updated on 10/18/2018.