The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Johann Gutenberg
1398 - 1468

The German inventor and printer Johann Gutenberg was the inventor of movable-type mechanical printing in Europe.


Johann Gutenberg was born Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden, in Mainz. He was the third child of Freile zum Gensfleisch and his second wife, Else Wirick zum Gutenberg, whose name Johann adopted. Nothing is known of Gutenberg's studies or apprenticeship except that he learned the trade of a goldsmith while living in Mainz. About 1428 his family was exiled as a result of a revolt of the craftsmen against the noble class ruling the town, and in 1430 Gutenberg established himself in Strassburg, where he remained until 1444.

Gutenberg's experiments in printing began during his years in Strassburg. He was already familiar with the techniques of xylography, the process used to make books and other printed matter in Europe since the 14th century, and in the Far East much earlier. Then came the transition from xylography to typography, infinitely more practical for text printing since, instead of reproduction by means of wood carving, a small separate block (type) was used for each sign or character. The idea of movable type may have occurred to many people independently; Gutenberg may have worked in this field about 1436.

Business of Printing

There is no record of Gutenberg's whereabouts after 1444, but he appears again in Mainz according to a document dated October 1448. By 1450 he is known to have had a printing plant, for which he borrowed 800 guilders from the rich financier Johann Fust to enable him to manufacture certain tools and equipment. In December 1452 Gutenberg had to pay off his debt. Being unable to do so, he and Fust concluded a new agreement, under which Gutenberg received another similar loan and the financier became a partner in the enterprise. At that time Gutenberg already printed with movable type, thus making the idea conceived in Strassburg a reality in Mainz. A very valuable assistant to Gutenberg was his young employee and disciple Peter Schoeffer, who joined the firm in 1452. In spite of their successes, the relationship between Gutenberg and Fust took a bad turn, Fust sued Gutenberg for 2, 000 guilders, and in 1455 the partnership was dissolved. Fust won the court action and thereby acquired Gutenberg's materials and tools and went into partnership with Schoeffer.

Provenance of printed works of this period is therefore difficult, especially since there are no printed works surviving with Gutenberg's name on them. From that period dates the monumental and extremely beautiful 42-Line Bible, also called the Gutenberg Bible and Mazarin Bible, a work in big folio which is the crowning of many years of collaboration by the Gutenberg-Fust-Schoeffer team. However, when the first finished copies were turned out in early 1456, Gutenberg, undoubtedly the main creator of the work, no longer belonged to the partnership. Fust continued printing successfully with Gutenberg's equipment and also with machinery improved by Schoeffer. In the meantime Gutenberg, not at all favored by fortune in his various undertakings, had to start all over again. It is believed that the fruit of his work in these years is the 36-Line Bible and the famous Catholicon, a kind of encyclopedia. Again, as Gutenberg never put his name on any of his works, all ascriptions are hypothetical.

Later Years

In 1462 Mainz was sacked by the troops of Adolph II. Fust's printing office was set on fire and Gutenberg suffered losses as well, the same as other craftsmen. In consequence of this disaster many typographers left Mainz, and through their dispersion they also scattered their until now so jealously protected know-how. Gutenberg remained in Mainz, but he was again reduced to poverty, and he requested the archiepiscopal court for a sinecure, which he obtained on Jan. 17, 1465, including salary and privileges "for services rendered … and to be rendered in the future." Gutenberg's post at the court allowed him some economic relief, but nevertheless he carried on with his printing activities. The works from this final period in his life are unknown because of lack of identification.

Reportedly, Gutenberg became blind in the last months of his life, living partly in Mainz and partly in the neighbouring village of Eltville. He died in St. Victor's parish in Mainz on Feb. 3, 1468, and was buried in the church of the Franciscan convent in that town. His physical appearance is unknown, though there are many imaginary depictions of his face and figure, including statues erected in Mainz and Strassburg. In 1900 the Gutenberg Museum was founded in Mainz with a library annexed to it to which all the objects and documents related to the invention of typography were entrusted.


Gutenberg, Johannes (Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden; c. 1400–1468), the first European printer, inventor of movable type. Throughout the Middle Ages texts continued to be created and transmitted the way they had been in ancient Greece and Rome: by handwriting. Each manuscript (literally, 'written by hand') was a unique and individually made object. If one copy of a text existed, and a second was needed, it required a fresh round of handwork, taking about as much time to complete as the first copy had. Then about 1450, an entirely new technique of text-creation, typographic printing, was developed in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg. Through his invention, multiple copies of the same text, whether of a single-page document such as a church indulgence, or of a massive book such as the Bible, could be produced in a workshop as part of a single, mechanized process of production. Within the next quarter century Gutenberg's invention took firm root in Europe, and printed books became familiar objects for educated readers. Printing radically changed the tempo and scale of bookmaking: contemporaries remarked in amazement that as much could be printed in a day as a scribe could write in a year. This in turn affected the systems of book sales and distribution, book prices, readers' expectations for the appearance of their books, and eventually all aspects of book culture.

In their layouts and letterforms the earliest printed books closely resemble, as they were meant to do, professionally written manuscripts of their time. Yet the way in which they were made is so different from handwriting that, although we know almost nothing about Gutenberg's personality, we must believe that he had a rarely creative mind. The underlying idea of typography is the creation, in cast metal alloy, of multiple copies of every letter form in reverse, each standing on a rectangular shaft of about one-inch height so that they could be easily picked up and placed side by side to form lines of words, which then were arranged and blocked together to form entire type-pages of words. These type-pages were dabbed with a sticky black oilbased ink; a sheet of paper (or vellum, as the case may be) was laid over the page; and the paper and types were put under the plate of a screw-action press. The plate pressed the inked, reverse-image types strongly into the paper, leaving a sharp, forward-reading image of a full page of text in the paper. By successive inkings, as many copies as desired of that same type-page could be printed off, and gradually, multiple copies of a complete book were created, page by page.

The critical feature of Gutenberg's invention was that after all the needed copies of a given page had been printed off, the types were cleaned of ink, loosened, and returned, one by one, into the type cases, each character going into its appropriate box, ready for setting more text. By means of this constant recycling, a relatively small amount of type, and thus a relatively small investment in time, labor, and metal, was sufficient to print hundreds of copies of a book of any length. For instance, a single type-page of the Gutenberg Bible would have amounted to about twenty pounds of metal, and a typical full case of type in one of the early printing shops may have weighed about sixty-five pounds. However, if the entire text of the Gutenberg Bible had been set in standing pages, the total weight of the types needed would have been more than twelve tons.

Fragments survive of several crudely produced editions of a Latin grammar, Donatus, and of a German prophetic poem, the Sibyllenbuch, which are probably the results of Gutenberg's earliest typographic experiments. The massive Latin Bible commonly called the Gutenberg Bible, completed in 1455, was a much more expensive and ambitious project: a two-volume work, beautifully printed, of more than 1,200 large pages (approximately 16 by 11 inches). The Italian humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II (reigned 1458–1464), saw sample sheets of the Bible in Frankfurt am Main in the fall of 1454 and wrote enthusiastically to a friend in Rome about the high quality of the workmanship. He was told that some 180 copies were being made.

The chief investor in the Bible project was a wealthy Mainz citizen, Johann Fust (d. 1466). After the Bible was completed, Fust brought a successful lawsuit against Gutenberg, claiming that his investment had been partly diverted to other projects of Gutenberg's. Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schoeffer went on to form their own successful printing shop in Mainz.

After the breakup with Fust, Gutenberg was able, with the aid of another Mainz investor, to continue his experiments in typography into the late 1450s. A potential drawback of his first invention was that, because the pages of type were only temporary, if a new edition of a text was called for, it had to be reset from the beginning, with time and costs equal to that of the first edition. In response to this, Gutenberg developed a second system of printing, whereby the composed pages of type were not printed from directly. Instead, the set types were used to make moulds, into which were cast thin metal strips, each bearing on its surface the raised impression of two lines of text. These strips were blocked together to make up type-pages, which went under the printing press. When the printing was done, the strips could be stored, page-by-page, so that if a new edition was called for, they could be quickly reassembled, without the time and cost of new composition.

Using this system, Gutenberg and his workers produced in 1460 two brief religious tracts and a massive Latin dictionary, the Catholicon. After Gutenberg's death, the strips of the tracts were printed from once again (1469), and of the Catholicon twice again (1469 and 1473). Unlike the first invention of recycling types, this second invention of "frozen" types did not spread to other printing shops. Its near equivalent, stereotyping, was not developed until some 250 years later.

The Spread of Printing

In Gutenberg's lifetime the technology of printing spread slowly, to Strasbourg, Bamberg, Cologne, and into Italy, reaching Rome in 1467. In the year he died, 1468, it may not have been clear to contemporary eyes that printing would soon become a substantial replacement for, rather than just a parallel alternative to, the traditional system of handwritten books. A much broader and more rapid spread began in 1469 and after, when printing was first introduced to the great trading city of Venice. By 1500, printing shops had been introduced to more than 250 European cities and towns, although many of these were the sites for only brief experiments. Concurrently, a strong consolidation of shops began to form in a dozen or so cities—Venice, Paris, Milan, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, and others—which among them produced nearly twothirds of the approximately 28,000 surviving printed editions of the fifteenth century. By contrast, from about 1475 onward, there was a rapid fall-off in the production of manuscript books.

In essence, the fifteenth-century printers and publishers produced, in the totality of their output, a kind of résumé of all the written culture of the western world that still had a wide currency in their own age: ancient authors and the Bible; the major writings and commentaries on theology, law, and medicine; sermon collections; liturgical and devotional books; confessionals and other manuals for priests. Many of the "best-selling" authors of the period, such as Cicero, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, had been dead for centuries. At the same time, the printers were capable of giving quick and wide currency to the events and concerns of the day. When Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493, his report to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella was rapidly translated into Latin and published in three Rome editions as a kind of brief newsletter.

The role of printing, from the earliest years, in creating a mass circulation of almanacs, prognostications, indulgences, and small vernacular writings of many kinds has often been underestimated because of the very low survival rate of these genres. For example, we know from a document that in 1500 a printer in Messina had produced more than 130,000 copies of indulgences for the bishop of Cefalù, yet not a single copy is known to survive.


German inventor and printer, long credited with the invention of a method of printing from movable type, including the use of metal moulds and alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks: a method that, with refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means of printing until the late 20th cent. His type, which was hand set with characters of equal height, was printed on handmade paper. Similar printing had been done earlier in China and Korea. In China printing from movable woodblocks was invented by Pi Sheng in 1040, and printing with movable type made of clay was also prevalent; in Korea movable copper type was invented as early as 1392. Europeans who have been thought by some to have preceded Gutenberg in the practice of his art include Laurens Janszoon Koster, of Holland, and Pamfilo Castaldi, of Italy. Early in the 21st cent. scholars, using computer technology, proposed that Gutenberg's movable type may actually have been sand cast, rather than produced in metal moulds. If true, this would indicate that the development of Western printing technology was somewhat more gradual than previously thought.

Evidence indicates that Gutenberg was born in Mainz, trained as a goldsmith, and entered a partnership in which he taught his friends his secret profession of printing in the 1430s. He lived in Strasbourg for some years, and he may have made his great invention there in 1436 or 1437; he returned to Mainz (c.1446) and formed a partnership with a goldsmith, Johann Fust. Gutenberg's goal was to mechanically reproduce medieval liturgical manuscripts without losing their colour or beauty of design. The masterpiece of his press has been known under several names: the Gutenberg Bible; the Mazarin Bible; and in modern times, as the 42-line Bible, for the number of lines in each printed column. Fust's demand (1455) for repayment of sums advanced resulted in a settlement in which Gutenberg abandoned his claims to his invention and surrendered his stock, including type and the incomplete work on the 42-line Bible, to Fust, who continued the business and completed printing the Bible with the help of Peter Schöffer, who later became his son-in-law. Although the work bears no place of printing, date, or printer's name, it is usually dated to 1455. Printed in an edition of about 180 copies, it is the earliest extant Western book printed in movable type.

It is thought that Gutenberg re-established himself in the printing business with the aid of Conrad Humery; works attributed, not unanimously, to him include a Missale speciale constantiense and a Catholicon (1460). The Elector of Mainz, Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, presented him with a benefice (1465) yielding an income and various privileges. There is a Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.






Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and printer, who is credited with inventing movable type printing in Europe (ca. 1450) and mechanical printing globally. His major work, the Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line bible, has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality.

Among Gutenberg's specific contributions were the design of metal movable type, the invention of a process for making such type in quantity (mass production), the use of oil-based ink, and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the screw olive and wine presses of the period. His truly epochal invention was the combination of these elements into a practical system. Gutenberg may have been familiar with printing; it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. Gutenberg's method for making type is traditionally considered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type.

The use of movable type was a marked improvement on the handwritten manuscript, which was the existing method of book production in Europe, and upon woodblock printing, and revolutionized European book-making. Gutenberg's printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe and is considered a key factor in the European Renaissance. Gutenberg remains a towering figure in the popular image; in 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg #1 on their "People of the Millennium" countdown, and in 1997, Time-Life magazine picked Gutenberg's invention as the most important of the second millennium.

Gutenberg was born the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. According to some accounts Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely he was involved in the cloth trade. Gutenberg's year of birth is not known; it was certainly between 1394 and 1404, most likely around 1400.

At the time, patricians in Mainz were often named after the houses they owned, and around 1427, the name zu Gutenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented for the first time. This house had previously been known as "Judenberg," Jewish Hill. According to historian John Man, "In the 1282 pogrom, fifty-four Jewish properties were abandoned and were grabbed by the rich and powerful. It seems that the Gutenberg house fell to the archbishop's treasurers. It was later acquired by the great-great-grandfather of our inventor and stayed in the family."

In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. The Gutenbergs may have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. He may have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of a student in 1419 named Johannes de Alta villa. Following his father's death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.

Nothing is known of Gutenberg's life for the next fifteen years, but in March 1434, a letter by him indicates that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some relatives on his mother's side. He also appears to have been a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia. In 1437, there is evidence that he was instructing a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems, but where he had acquired this knowledge is unknown. In 1436/37 his name also comes up in court in connection with a broken promise of marriage to a woman from Strasbourg, Ennelin. Whether the marriage actually took place is not recorded.

Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen: in 1439 the city was planning to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but the event was delayed by one year and the capital already spent could not be repaid. When the question of satisfying the investors came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a "secret". It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light"

At least up to 1444, he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogast suburb. It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, presumably for a printing press.

By 1450, the press was most likely in operation, and a German poem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schoeffer, who became Fust's son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Shoeffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and designed some of the first typefaces.

Gutenberg's workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profitmaking enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454/55.

In 1455 Gutenberg published his 42-line Bible, commonly known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.

Sometime in 1455, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust, and Fust demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of embezzling funds. Meanwhile the expenses of the Bible project had proliferated, and Gutenberg's debt now exceeded 2,000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop's court. A November 1455 legal document records that there was a partnership for a "project of the books," the funds for which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. The court decided in favour of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.

Thus Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt, but it appears he retained (or re-started) a small printing shop, and participated in the printing of a bible in the town of Bamberg around 1459, for which he at least supplied the type. But since his printed books never carry his name or a date, it is difficult to be certain, and there is consequently a considerable scholarly literature. It is also possible that the large Catholicon dictionary, 300 copies of 744 pages, printed in Mainz in 1460, may have been executed in his workshop.

Meanwhile, the Fust-Schoeffer shop were the first to bring out a book with the printer's name and date, the Mainz Psalter of August 1457, and while proudly proclaiming the mechanical process by which it had been produced, it made no mention of Gutenberg.

n 1462, during a conflict between two archbishops, Mainz was sacked by archbishop Adolph von Nassau, and Gutenberg was exiled. An old man by now, he moved to Eltville where he may have initiated and supervised a new printing press belonging to the brothers Bechterm nze.

In January 1465, Gutenberg's achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by von Nassau. This honour included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2180 liters of grain and 2000 liters of wine tax-free. It is believed he may have moved back to Mainz around this time, but this is not certain.

Gutenberg died in 1468 and was buried in the Franciscan church at Mainz, his contributions largely unknown. This church and the cemetery were later destroyed, and Gutenberg's grave is lost.

In 1504, he was mentioned as the inventor of typography in a book by Professor Ivo Wittig. It was not until 1567 that the first portrait of Gutenberg, almost certainly an imaginary reconstruction, appeared in Heinrich Pantaleon's biography of famous Germans.

Although Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, the printing technologies spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe much faster than before. It fed the growing Renaissance, and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing, it was a major catalyst for the later scientific revolution.

The capital of printing in Europe shifted to Venice, where visionary printers like Aldus Manutius ensured widespread availability of the major Greek and Latin texts. The claims of an Italian origin for movable type have also focused on this rapid rise of Italy in movable-type printing. This may perhaps be explained by the prior eminence of Italy in the paper and printing trade. Additionally, Italy's economy was growing rapidly at the time, facilitating the spread of literacy. Finally, the city of Mainz was sacked in 1462, driving many (including a number of printers and punch cutters) into exile.

Printing was also a factor in the Reformation: Martin Luther found that the 95 Theses, which he posted on the door of his church, were printed and circulated widely; subsequently he also issued broadsheets outlining his anti-indulgences position (ironically, indulgences were one of the first items Gutenberg had printed). The broadsheet evolved into newspapers and defined the mass media we know today.

In the decades after Gutenberg, many conservative patrons looked down on cheap printed books; books produced by hand were considered more desirable. At one point the papal court debated a policy of requiring printing presses to obtain a license, but this could not be decreed.

Today there is a large antique market for the earliest printed objects. Books printed prior to 1500 are known as incunabula.

There are many statues of Gutenberg in Germany, including the famous one by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1837) in Mainz, home to the Gutenberg Museum and the eponymous Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The Gutenberg Galaxy and Project Gutenberg also commemorate Gutenberg's name. Matthew Skelton's book Endymion Spring explores a controversial theory about Johann Gutenberg and his partner Fust.

In 1961 the Canadian philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan entitled his pioneering study in the fields of print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.











This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008