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Johann Gutenberg

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (circa 1398February 3, 1468), a German metal-worker and inventor, achieved fame for his contributions to the technology of printing during about the 1450s, including a type metal alloy and oil-based inks, a mold for casting type accurately, and a new kind of printing press based on presses used in wine-making. Tradition credits him with inventing movable type in Europe, an improvement on the block printing already in use there. By combining these elements into a production system, he allowed for the rapid printing of written materials and an information explosion in Renaissance Europe.

Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, as the son of a merchant named Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, who adopted the surname "zum Gutenberg" after the name of the neighborhood into which the family had moved.



Block printing, whereby as individual sheets of paper were pressed into wooden blocks with the text and illustrations carved in, was in use in Europe and East Asia long before Gutenberg. The Koreans and Chinese knew about movable metal types at the time, but due to the complex nature of the Chinese writing system, printed material was not as abundant as that of Renaissance Europe.

It is not clear whether Gutenberg knew of these existing techniques or invented them independently. Some also claim Laurens Coster as the first European to invent movable type.

Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe, in large part due to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system. Gutenberg began experimenting with metal typography after he had moved from his native town of Mainz (Germany) to Strassburg (a part of France since 1678, formerly German) around 1430. Knowing that wood-block type involved a great deal of time and expense to reproduce because it had to be hand-carved, Gutenberg concluded that metal type could be reproduced much more quickly once a single mold had been fashioned. His first efforts enabled him to mass-produce indulgences, printed slips of paper sold by the Catholic Church to remit the temporal punishments in Purgatory for sins committed in this life.

Johann Fust

Johann Gutenberg obtained the capital he needed to perfect his revolutionary printing press by forming a partnership with a wealthy investor named Johann Fust.


At the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair, Gutenberg demonstrated the power of the printing press by selling copies of a two-volume Bible for 300 florins each. This was the equivalent of approximately three years' wages for an average clerk. However, it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible, which could take a single monk 20 years to transcribe.


The money Gutenberg earned at the fair was more than enough. Fust sued, and the court's ruling not only effectively bankrupted Gutenberg, it awarded control of the type used in his Bible, plus much of the printing equipment, to Fust. So, while Gutenberg ran a print shop until just before his death in Mainz in 1468, Fust became the first printer to publish a book with his name on it.


Although Gutenberg was unsuccessful in his lifetime, his invention spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe far faster than before. It fed the growing Renaissance, and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing, was a major factor in originating the scientific revolution. Literacy also increased as a result. Gutenberg's inventions are sometimes considered the turning point from the Mediaeval Era to the Early Modern Period.

Other printed works

The Bible was not Gutenberg's first printed work. He produced approximately two dozen editions of Ars Minor, a portion of Aelius Donatus's schoolbook on Latin grammar, the first edition of which is believed to have been printed between 1451 and 1452.

Gutenberg Bibles

The Gutenberg Bibles surviving today are sometimes called the oldest surviving books printed with movable type, although the oldest surviving book is the New Code of Etiquette by Yi Gyu-bo, published in Korea between 1234 and 1241. As of 2003, the Gutenberg Bible census includes 11 complete copies on vellum, 1 copy of the New Testament only on vellum, 48 substantially complete integral copies on paper, with another divided copy on paper.

The term incunabulum refers to a western printed book produced between the first work of Gutenberg and the end of the year 1500.

There are many statues of Gutenberg in Germany, one of the more famous being a work by Thorvaldsen, in Mainz, which is also home to the Gutenberg Museum.

The Gutenberg Galaxy and Project Gutenberg commemorate Gutenberg's name.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04