www.whyville.net Dec 2, 1999 Weekly Issue

Johannes Gutenberg

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Have you noticed that the streets of Myville are all named after famous scientists and artists from the Renaissance? In case these folks aren't so famous to you, you might want to follow along this series of articles, and get to know the person on whose street you're living. This week's article is about a famous German, who is credited with the invention of the moveable type printing press.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

Johannes Gutenberg
The much-sued father of the printing press

Have you ever wondered how ideas went from being spoken to being written in books? Johannes Gutenberg is part of the answer.

Gutenberg was born in 1398 to a well-off family in the city of Mainz, Germany. His full name was Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zu Gutenberg. His father, Friele, and his uncle were officials at the Archbishop's mint. After training to be a goldsmith, he moved to Strasbourg, Germany in 1428, where he made his first attempts at type-setting.

Lets back up for a moment and firstlook at the state of b ooks before Gutenberg. Starting in 868 AD with the Diamond Sutra, the Chinese carved books into wood blocks; the process of carving into wood blocks to print text or pictures is called xylography. In Europe, however, books were written by scribes on the skins of animals in gothic script until the 1300's!

Copperplate portrait of Gutenberg by Andr Thevet (Paris, 1584)

The printing technology we have tody started in the 1400's. Some people tried to carve individual wood letters, but they were very fragile and each letter was different. In 1452, Gutenberg, using his knowledge of metalworking, made over 300 metal characters consisting of letters, numbers and symbols. These characters, known as moveable type, were larger, more readable, and more durable than wooden blocks.

Once he had characters, it was easy to imagine typography. The process of typography involves several steps:

  1. Take the type pieces one at a time from their case
  2. Arrange the type pieces side by side on a composing "stick", a strip of wood with corners that you can hold in your hand
  3. Space the words with lead blocks so that each line is the same length
  4. After printing, replace the type, letter by letter, back in the case.
You can try this on your own by cutting up letters from a newspaper and using the individual letters to write a sentence.

In Strasbourg, Gutenberg then set out to develop a printing press. However, he had to make a living, by selling wine, while doing this, so progress was slow.

Gutenberg's role in the invention of the printing press might have been lost to history if it weren't for a court case in 1439. He had arranged to sell his printing technology to three Strasbourg men, Hans Riffe, Andres Heilmann and Andres Dritzehen. They kept the press secret, to prevent competition. Something went wrong, and they sued Gutenberg. He lost the lawsuit and, 9 years later, returned to Mainz, where he looked for someone else to finance his experiments.

In Mainz, a businessman named Johann Fust decided to help Gutenberg to invent the printing press. In 1450, Fust gave him a large loan of four hundred guilders, under the agreement that if Gutenberg failed to repay the money plus interest, Fust would get to keep Gutenberg's equipment.

A replica of Gutenberg's printing press

Gutenberg worked for two years, but ran out of money before finishing. Fust gave him another four hundred guilders and became his partner. Again, they made the agreement that if the money was not repaid, Fust would take over the business. This time, Gutenberg finished his first printing press, which, as it happened, was adapted from a wine press for squishing grapes.

With a working press, they could print a book! The first book they made was the famous Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in moveable type. The picture here shows what we think the press looked like; Gutenberg was very secretive, so nobody knows how the original was built. This press has a lower surface that does not move and an upper one that does. To print a page:

  1. Put movable type goes into slots on the lower surface.
  2. Roll ink over the characters.
  3. Put a piece of paper in the machine.
  4. Push the handle to press the paper against the type.

Gutenberg was an inventor, but clearly not a businessman. He was unable to repay his loads from Fust, so Fust sued him. The court forced him to hand over everything: his type, his presses, and all the work he had done. Gutenberg was left without work or money. He was given a pension as a distinguished citizen of Mainz in 1465. No one knows for sure if he ever printed anything after this. He died about three years later, in 1468.

Gutenberg's great invention did not seem to affect people's lives right away. It took time; after all, most people in Europe then did not even know how to read. Gradually, even these people were affected by books, because traveling story tellers could earn a living by reading aloud from books in the town squares. Eventually, because the printing press made it so much easier and cheaper to print books, books became affordable even for people who weren't very rich, and more and more people started to learn to read.

A page from the Gutenberg Bible, in German

Learn more about Gutenberg from:
The Electronic Labyrinth
Graphion Type Museum


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