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Fascinating facts about Johannes Gutenberg inventor of the Printing Press in 1440.

Johannes Gutenberg
In 1440, German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press process that, with refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means of printing until the late 20th century. The inventor's method of printing from movable type, including the use of metal molds and alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks, allowed for the first time the mass production of printed books. 
Inventor: Johannes Gutenberg (aka Johann Gutenberg)
Johannes Gutenberg image courtesy Gutenberg Museum
Criteria; First to invent. First practical. Entrepreneur.
Birth: c1400 in Mainz, Germany
Death: February 3, 1468 in Mainz, Germany
Nationality: German
Invention: printing press
Book cover from "Gutenberg" by Leonard Everett Fisher (see below)
Function: noun / print·ing press
Definition: A machine that transfers lettering or images by contact with various forms of inked surface onto paper or similar material fed into it in various ways The device is used for printing many copies of a text on paper.
888 The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, was the first dated example of block printing.
1041 Bi Sheng in China invented movable clay type
1400 Johannes Gutenberg born in Mainz, Germany
1423 Europeans use xylography (art of engraving on wood, block printing) to produce books.
1430 Gutenberg moved from his native town of Mainz to Strasburg
1436 Gutenberg begins work on his printing press.
1437 Gutenberg was sued for "breach of promise of marriage" by a young lady of  Strasburg
1440 Gutenberg completed his wooden press which used movable metal type.
1440 Laurens Janszoon Koster (Coster) is credited, by some, with inventing movable metal type
1444 Gutenberg returns to Mainz and sets up a printing shop
1446 Gutenberg prints the "Poem of the Last Judgment"
1448 Gutenberg prints the "Calendar for 1448"
1450 Gutenberg' formed a partnership with the wealthy Johann Fust
1450 Gutenberg begins work on a Bible, the first is 40 lines per page.
1452 Gutenberg begins printing the 42-line Bible in two volumes.
1454 Gutenberg prints indulgences (notes sold to Christians by the Pope, pardoning their sins)
1455 First block-printed Bible, the Biblia Pauperum, published in Germany.
1455 Gutenberg completed work on what is estimated to be 200 copies of the Bible
1455 Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt. Investor Johann Faust gains control of print business
1457 First known color printing, a Psalter (a collection of Psalms for devotional use) by Faust.
1460 Gutenberg reestablished himself in the printing business with the aid of Conrad Humery
1461 Albrecht Pfister printed the first illustrated book Edelstein which featured a number of woodcuts.
1465 Gutenberg is appointed to the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau
1458 Johannes Gutenberg died February 3, in Mainz, German
1499 Printing had become established in more than 2500 cities around Europe.
1499 An estimated 15 million books have been press printed, representing thirty thousand book titles
CAPs: Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Gutenberg, Bi Sheng, Laurens Janszoon Koster, Johann Faust, Peter Schoffer, Albrecht Pfister, Conrad Humery, Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, William Caxton, Gutenberg Bible, 42-line Bible, Mazarin Bible, Diamond Sutra, Poem of the Last Judgment, Calendar for 1448, Psalter, Aesop's Fables,
SIPs: printing press, movable type, xylography, metal type, indulgences, typography, letterpress printing, invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
Inventor of the printing press, Henne Gänsfleisch zur Laden, commonly called Johannes Gutenberg,  was born about 1400 and died in 1468 at Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg was the son of Friele (Friedrich) Gänsfleisch and Else Wyrich. Johannes last name was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors "zu Laden, zu Gutenberg".

The House of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century. From the middle of the fourteenth century there were two branches, the line to which the inventor belongs and the line of Sorgenloch.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it scions claimed an hereditary position as so-called Hausgenossen, or retainers of the household, of the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases.

Of Johannes Gutenberg's father, Friele Gänsfleisch, we know only that he was married in 1386 to Else Wyrich, daughter of a burgher of Mainz, Werner Wyrich zum steinern Krame (at the sign of the pottery shop), and that he died in 1419, his wife dying in 1433. Of their three children — Friele (d. 1447), Else, and Johannes — the last-named (the inventor of typography) was born some time in the last decade of the fourteenth century, presumably between 1394 and 1400.

All that is known of his youth is that he moved from Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strasburg, where the family probably had connections. The first record of Gutenberg's journey to Strasburg dates from  March 14, 1434. He took a place befitting his rank in the patrician class of the city, but he also at the same time joined the goldsmiths' guild — quite an exceptional proceeding, yet characteristic of his untiring technical activity.

The trades which Gutenberg taught his pupils and associates, Andreas Dritzehn, Hans Riffe, and Andreas Heilmann, included gem-polishing, the manufacture of looking-glasses and the art of printing, as we learn from the records of a lawsuit between Gutenberg and the Dritzehn brothers Georg and Klaus. In these records, Gutenberg appears distinctly as technical originator and manager of the business.

Concerning the "new art form, printing", one witness states that, in his capacity of goldsmith, he had supplied in 1436, indispensable printing knowledge; mention is also made of a press constructed by Konrad Saspach, a turner, with peculiar appliances (screws). The suit was therefore obviously concerned with experiments in typography, but no printed matter that can be traced to these experiments has so far come to light. In the year 1437 Gutenberg was sued for "breach of promise of marriage" by a young patrician girl of Strasburg, Ennel zur eisernen Tür. There is nothing to show whether this action led to a marriage or not.

When Johannes Gutenberg began building his press in 1436, he was unlikely to have realised that he was giving birth to an art form which would take center stage in the social and industrial revolutions which followed. He was German, his press was wooden, and the most important aspect of his invention was that it was the first form of printing to use movable type.

His initial efforts enabled him in 1440 to mass-produce indulgences -- printed slips of paper sold by the Catholic Church to remit temporal punishments in purgatory for sins committed in this life, for those wealthy enough to afford indulgences. Although Laurence Koster (Coster) of Haarlem, Netherlands also laid claim to the invention, scholars have generally accepted Gutenberg as the father of modern printing.

Gutenberg left Strasburg, presumably about 1444. He seems to have perfected at enormous expense his invention shortly afterwards, as is shown by the oldest specimens of printing that have come down to us, the "Poem of the Last Judgment", and the "Calendar for 1448"). The fact that Arnolt Gelthuss, a relative of Gutenberg, lent him money in the year 1448 at Mainz points to the same conclusion.

Before books could be mass produced, several developments were necessary.A ready supply of suitable material that could be printed on was required. Manuscript books were written on vellum and this material was used for some early printed books, but vellum was expensive and not available in sufficient quantity for the mass production of books. The introduction of the technique of making paper and the subsequent development of a European papermaking industry was a necessary condition for the widespread adoption of print technology.

Although a number of people had previously attempted to make metal type or had experimented with individual woodcut letters, it was not until a technique was devised for producing metal type in large quantities that printing with moveable type became economically feasible. Gutenberg, who had initially trained as a goldsmith, was to devise a means of producing metal type in sufficient quantities at a reasonable cost. This involved the design of a type-face and the production of molds used for making the individual pieces of type, as well as the development of an alloy that was soft enough to cast yet hard enough to use for printing.

It was also necessary to develop suitable inks for printing with the new type. The water-based inks used for hand lettering and for block printing will not stick to metal type, therefore a viscous oil based ink was required.

Finally, a press was needed for transferring the image from type to paper. Precedents existed in the presses used for making wine, cheese and paper and one of Johannes Gutenberg's innovations was to adapt these presses for the printing process. An operator worked a lever to increase and decrease the pressure of the block against the paper. The invention of the printing press, in turn, set off a social revolution that is still in progress.

Legal documents indicate that Gutenberg probably began printing the Bible around 1450. It was in this year that Gutenberg entered into a partnership with Johann Fust who lent him money to finance the production of a Bible. Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe -- in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting in 1452. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

The history of the printed Bible with movable type is the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Fragments of earlier bibles have also been found - they are differentiated by the number of lines of text on a page. Scholars have identified several variants and attempted to work out the sequence of development on the basis of the quality of the individual pieces of type.

The oldest surviving Bible printed with movable type is often called the Gutenberg Bible (named after its printer Johannes Gutenberg), or the 42-line Bible (so called because with few exceptions, each page has 42 lines of print), or the Mazarin Bible (because the first copy to recapture attention in 1760 was found in the library of Cardinal Mazarin, in Paris).

The Bible, printed at Mainz, probably required several years of work; it began in 1452 and was completed not later than 1455 and printed in an edition of about 200 copies. The text of the Bible is Latin. Colored initials and other illuminations were hand drawn after the pages were printed. The pages of the book are folio, each page is in two columns, and, with few exceptions, each column has 42 lines. The Gutenberg Bible lacks many print features that modern readers are accustomed to, such as pagination, word spacing, indentations, and paragraph breaks.

The Bible was large comprising over 1280 pages, and the text was laid out in two columns. The German Gothic type-style was modeled on manuscripts of the period. The columns of text are tightly justified right and left. This is possible because Latin words can be abbreviated by replacing letters with symbols. The printed text was black, with red and blue headers and initials being added later by an illuminator. The edition includes both vellum and paper copies. In design and workmanship, the Gutenberg Bible holds its place as one of the finest of all printed books.
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, and an illuminated page (the Bagford fragment).

The very first pages Gutenberg printed had only 40 lines per column. Later in the course of printing, Gutenberg realized the paper could accommodate 42 lines and so the pages were reset and printed again in the new format. The original pages of 40 lines were included in the very first issue of the Gutenberg Bible.

History records that Gutnberg's declining years were spent in the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, to whose suite he was appointed on January 18, 1465. The distinction thus conferred on him carried with it allowances of clothing and other necessities which saved him from actual want. In all likelihood he died at Mainz in 1468..


Invention of the Printing Press   from The Great Idea Finder
History of the Gutenberg Bible    from The Great Idea Finder 
Communication History   from The Great Idea Finder

100 Inventions That Shaped World History
by Bill Yenne, Morton, Dr. Grosser (Editor) / Paperback - 112 pages (1983)
/ Bluewood Books 
This book contains inventions from all around the world from microchips to fire. This is a really good book if you are going to do research on inventions.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity : An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture
by John H. Lienhard / Paperback: 272 pages / Oxford University Press, USA (December 4, 2003)
Based on episodes from Lienhard's widely broadcast public radio series, this intriguing set of essays begins with a simple premise: more than we often care to admit, our lives are shaped by our machines. Fleshing out this proposition, Lienhard ransacks 2,000 years of scientific and technological history, cobbling together a quirky biography of the strange being he calls homo technologicus.
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
Sven P. Birkerts / Paperback / Fawcett Books -1985
Birkerts, a renowned critic, examines the practice of reading with an eye to what the future will bring.
Fine Print : A Story About Johann Gutenberg
Joann Johnson Burch / Paperback - 64 pages / Carolrhoda Books - 1992
This interesting book about Gutenberg's struggles to complete and perfect his printing
process gives a vivid picture of life in the Middle Ages.

Johann Gutenberg: Master of Modern Printing
by Michael Pollard, Anna Sproule / Library Binding: 64 pages /  Blackbirch Press; (February, 2001)
This book is straightforward and easy to read. The cover is attractive and the pictures along with the easy to read text provide information that sustains the reader's attention. Information can be correlated with the social studies curriculum. This book would be a great resource for elementary and middle school students. A welcome addition to most library collections.
The Gutenberg Bible : Landmark in Learning
by James E. Thorpe / Hardcover - 48 pages 2nd edition (1997) / H E Huntington Library & Art
The Huntington Library holds one of the three vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the United States. Details the early history of printing and how the Gutenberg Bible was printed. .

Gutenberg (Limited availability.)
Leonard Everett Fisher / Library Binding - 28 pages / Simon & Schuster - 1993

Fisher's biography of Johann Gutenberg, the creator of movable type and the printer of the Gutenberg Bible, is marked by careful research, clear writing, and striking illustrations

Gutenberg Museum
His name is associated with innovation, activity and courage. His idea is the foundation stone of modern civilization. Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg created the basis of modern communication with his invention of printing with mobile letters.
The Printing Press
In spite of Gutenberg's efforts to keep his technique a secret, the printing press spread rapidly. Before 1500 some 2500 European cities had acquired presses.
Johannes Gutenberg and The Printed Book
The printing press had developed from the wine press in the Rhine Valley. It was there in 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg (c.1397-1468) began using the printing press in conjunction with a series of blocks each bearing a single letter on its face.
An Industry Born
When Johannes Gutenberg began building his press in 1436, he was unlikely to have realized that he was giving birth to an art form which would take center stage in the social and industrial revolutions which followed. Article by Pierre De La Mare for Dot Print.

The Catholic Encyclopedia
Detail on the Gutenberg bible. Henne Gänsfleisch zur Laden, commonly called Gutenberg. The invention of Gutenberg should be classed with the greatest events in the history of the world.
Fifteen Million Books in Fifty Years
Five hundred years ago, the new presses had spread like brushfire through Europe. The people had suddenly come into possession of some fifteen million new books. Scholars argue about the number. It could've been as few as eight million or as many as twenty four million. But the output of new books had been staggering by any reasonable estimate. And those books reflected some thirty thousand titles. Article
by John H. Lienhard
The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead
There are some provocative parallels between the communications changes enabled by networked computers and those enabled by the printing press in its early days. Article by James A. Dewar

Project Gutenberg
Fine Literature Digitally Re-Published. With over 16,000 free books in the catalog, Project Gutenberg is the largest single collection of free electronic books, or eBooks. The project is powered by ideas, ideals, and by idealism. It is not powered by financial or political power, it is powered totally by volunteers.
Gutenberg College
Gutenberg College consists of an undergraduate liberal arts program and two auxiliary institutes, McKenzie Study Center and Art Project. Together these three programs constitute a single educational institution in which each plays an integral role.
Johannes Gutenberg - "Man of the Millennium"
In honor of his invention, Gutenberg was recently chosen by an international panel of scientists as the "most outstanding personality of the millennium."

"In our time, thanks to the talent and industry of those from the Rhine, books have emerged in lavish numbers. A book that once would've belonged only to the rich -- nay, to a king -- can now be seen under a modest roof. ... There is nothing nowadays that our children ... fail to know." - Sebastian Brant, written about the printing press just after 1500.


  • In less than 50 years after the invention of the printing press, fifteen million books had been flung into a world where previously scholars would travel miles to visit a library stocked with twenty hand-written volumes. And those books reflected some thirty thousand titles.
  • Books produced in this period, between the first work of Johann Gutenberg in 1450 and the year 1500, are collectively referred to as incunabula.
  • Gutenberg changed plans at least three times while printing the Bible
  • The Bible that Gutenberg printed was a Latin translation from about 380 AD 
  • There are many statues of Gutenberg in Germany -- one of the more famous being a work by Thorvaldsen, in Mainz, home to the Gutenberg Museum.
  • Note: We discovered as many spellings with Johann as we did with Johannes. We went with a Google search that produced four times more Johannes Gutenberg's than Johann
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised January 26, 2006.

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