Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400 – February 3, 1468) was a German goldsmith, inventor, printer, and publisher who introduced printing to Europe with the printing press. His introduction of mechanical movable type printing to Europe started the Printing Revolution and is regarded as a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period of human history. It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.
Gutenberg in 1439 was the first European to use movable type. Among his many contributions to printing are: the invention of a process for mass-producing movable type; the use of oil-based ink for printing books; adjustable molds; mechanical movable type; and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of the period. His truly epochal invention was the combination of these elements into a practical system that allowed the mass production of printed books and was economically viable for printers and readers alike. Gutenberg’s method for making type is traditionally considered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type. The alloy was a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony that melted at a relatively low temperature for faster and more economical casting, cast well, and created a durable type.
In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information—including revolutionary ideas—transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its people led to the rise of proto-nationalism, accelerated by the flowering of the European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin’s status as lingua franca. In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.
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 later the world. His major work, the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible), was the first printed version of the Bible and has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality.
Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, Rhine-Main area, the youngest son of the patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife, Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. It is assumed that he was baptized in the area close to his birthplace of St. Christoph. 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 precisely known, but it was sometime between the years of 1394 and 1404. In the 1890s the city of Mainz declared his official and symbolic date of birth to be June 24, 1400.
John Lienhard, technology historian, says “Most of Gutenberg’s early life is a mystery. His father worked with the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing.” This is supported by historian Heinrich Wallau, who adds, “In the 14th and 15th centuries his [ancestors] claimed a hereditary position as … 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.”
Wallau adds, “His surname 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.” Patricians (the wealthy and political elite) in Mainz were often named after houses they owned. Around 1427, the name zu Gutenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented to have been used for the first time.
In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. As a result, the Gutenbergs are thought to have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. According to historian Heinrich Wallau, “All that is known of his youth is that he was not in Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strasbourg, where the family probably had connections.” He is assumed to have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of the enrolment of a student called Johannes de Altavilla in 1418—Altavilla is the Latin form of Eltville am Rhein.
Nothing is now 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. Following his father’s death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.
In 1462, during the devastating Mainz Diocesan Feud, 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 Bechtermünze.
In January 1465, Gutenberg’s achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by von Nassau. This honor included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2,180 litres of grain and 2,000 litres 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 now 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.