Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg is a man best known for creating the printing press, which led to the ability to quickly created books and other materials that had previously been written by hand. Gutenberg's invention certainly allowed information to travel at a much quicker rater, and the ability to easily print books meant that more books existed and more people and businesses would be able to own them. The modern library wouldn't exist like it does without this invention.

Early Life

johannes-gutenberg.jpg Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany between 1395 and 1395 to an upper-class family. His exact birth date is not known. Johannes' father, Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, was a merchant, and Johannes was the product of the marriage to Friele's second wife Else. Some reports claim that Gutenberg's father worked for a goldsmith's shop while others state that Friele was in the cloth trade. It could be his father's work that led to Johannes' involvement with the trade.

In the early 1400s the family would take on the name of their home, Gutenberg. This was common practice for the upper crust in the town. The specifics of Johannes' life are unknown. Historians believe political turmoil in Mainz caused his family to move to the city of Strassburg, now known as Strasbourg. Gutenberg's education likely occurred at the University of Erfurt, where there is record of a Johannes from his mother's inherited estate.

Johannes' father Friele died in 1419, and it is assumed that the young man inherited from his father's estate. A letter from 1434 indicates that Gutenberg had become a goldsmith who was also a member of the local militia. Gutenberg may have been engaged to a Strasbourg woman named Ennelin. However, court records imply that he broke the engagement.

The Secret of the Printing Press

Gutenburg wasn't successful as a businessman. The man helped manufacture metal mirrors of the type that were popular in the 1400s for a religious event. However, a large flood postponed the event and caused the investors to become frustrated. To repay the investors, whose money could not be returned, Gutenberg promised to tell them a secret. Many people believe the secret was, in fact, the idea behind the printing press.

During the next few years, Johannes would work on the idea of the printing press, but no one knows for sure whether the man created early versions. He eventually returned to Mainz and borrowed a sum of money from his brother-in-law. Historians believe that Gutenberg used this money to create the first press and obtain necessary materials to print. Historians are unsure whether Johannes Gutenberg printed anything before the first evidence of printing, a German poem, appeared in 1450.

The Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg relocated with the intent of beginning a large project. With a significant loan of 800 florins from an investor, Johann Fust, Johannes began printing the Holy Bible in 1452. Gutenberg worked with the son-in-law of one of his an investor, Johann Fust, to create different typefaces for the printing press. Meanwhile, Gutenberg also printed texts such as grammars to help fund the project. Johannes often worked with the church during 1454 and 1455 to create indulgences, a printed forgiveness of guilt that the church gave to members.

After three years, the Gutenberg Bible was complete. It contained just 42 lines, and Johannes printed about 180 copies, mostly on paper. A few copies were printed on vellum. These Bibles were available for a price of 30 florins, which is approximately three years' salary for a clerk of the time.

However, a legal dispute erupted. Fust believed that Johannes had not used the loan of 800 florins in the manner intended. Fust's case against Johannes Gutenberg led to the courts giving control of half of the Bibles and the printing workshop to Fust. Fust continued to operate the shop with his son-in-law, and the pair began putting their name and printing date in publications. The Fust–Schöffer printing shop even produced a text explaining how the printing press worked. There was no credit given to Gutenberg in this printing, however.

Post-Bible Life and Recognition

Historians believe that this legal battle led to Johannes Gutenberg going bankrupt. However, it appears that Gutenberg started another printing shop in his birthplace of Mainz where he would start another print shop and continue to print the Bible and other texts. Gutenberg remained in Mainz until he was exiled in 1462 after a dispute between two archbishops.

Johannes moved to Eltville and lent his printing knowledge to a local shop ran by two brothers. In 1463, Gutenberg finally received the first recognition for his creation of the movable type printing press and production of texts such as the Bible. He received the title “Hofmann,” or gentleman of the court, in addition to a stipend and sums of grain and wine that were free of tax.

As an old man, Johanne may have returned to Mainz with his rewards. Gutenberg died in 1468, where he was buried at the Franciscan church in Mainz. Gutenberg would receive recognition for his contribution to typography in a 1504 book written by a professor. He was also listed as one of several famous German residents in a biography by Heinrich Pantaleon. A painting accompanied the text, but historians believe that this was fabricated and not an actual representation of Johannes Gutenberg.

Evidence of Gutenberg's Press

Of the 180 Bibles that Gutenberg originally produced, 48 copies have survived mostly unscathed. The British Library has two of these texts and allows them to be viewed online. The Library of Congress also has control of one of the copies. Most of a Bible that Johannes printed several years later is also available.

Experts who have analyzed the texts created by Gutenberg have come to the conclusion that Gutenberg's press was rather rudimentary and that Johannes did not use punch cutting that would become common in Europe. Examination shows that not all characters are identical, which would be the case with a press that always reused printing types. If this is true others may have been working on a true punchcutting press while Gutenberg created his press.

Gutenberg's Legacy

While the Gutenberg printing press made printing large volumes of text easier in comparison to hand-writing texts, it still took quite some time. A single page could take as much as half a day to complete, and Gutenberg's shop may have employed as many as two dozen men.

Unfortunately, Gutenberg didn't benefit financially from his press. However, it certainly contributed to the Renaissance and the scientific revolution as information became readily available as printed materials. As Italy became a powerhouse in paper manufacturing, most printing moved to the country. However, some patricians would still view printed texts as “cheap” and continue to prize books written by hand as more valuable, perhaps due to the amount of effort that goes into a handwritten text.

Germany now offers tribute to Johannes Gutenberg via several statuesthat were erected around the country. Bertel Thorvaldsen created a statue of Gutenberg that resides in Gutenberg's hometown of Mainz, where the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz also exists. Mainz also houses the Gutenberg Museum that showcases his work.

Gutenberg and his press have received several accolades and awards, including being named the most influential person in the second century millennium (A & E Network) and the most important invention of the second millennium (Time-Lie Magazine). An asteroid is even named after the inventor, and 2011 saw a French opera about Gutenberg's life played out in Strasbourg.


QR Code
QR Code johannes_gutenberg (generated for current page)