The death of Johannes Gutenberg, 3 February 1468

Where would we be without Gutenberg's moveable type?

The death of Johannes Gutenberg – 3 February 1468
3rd February 2015 Jane Tomlinson

Where would humanity be without the stone axe, the wheel, the plough, the compass and the steam engine? Likewise the printing press, whose inventor, Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, died on this day in 1468.

“Yes but” I hear you bookish pedants cry, “didn’t the Chinese T’ang Dynasty have a method of printing from carved wooden blocks?” Indeed they did, but its efficiency was limited. Wood blocks are fiddly to make, can only be used for one edition, will not take corrections, and degrade quickly.

Before Gutenberg books were an eye-wateringly expensive item. Each book took scribes months to produce. They hand-copied the text with quill pens using inks they made from gum, ox gall, soot and water onto sheets of parchment, an expensive product in its own right made usually from calf skin. No wonder there were so few books and those that there were, were bibles; the only words worthy enough to commit to parchment. Most ordinary people had only ever seen one book – the bible in their parish church.

By the end of the 14th century there was a quiet unsung revolution going on; a water-powered method for making wood pulp-based paper had been developed. (Hence ‘paper mill’, since they were usually located on a river to power the process and provide the water.) Large quantities of uniform quality sheets were being produced cheaply.

Moveable metal type

Gutenberg was born sometime in the very late 1300s and worked in his native Mainz, Germany as a blacksmith and goldsmith. With his fine metalworking skills he developed his greatest gift to the world: moveable metal type. This he combined the traditional screw press (a Roman invention) to make durable, flexible and speedy printing equipment.

He cast tens of thousands of tiny individual metal letters in an alloy he devised of antimony, lead and tin. The letters could be ‘set’ to make words, sentences, pages, chapters, books, volumes! Initially fiddly to make and cast, yes, but they could be used again and again with no degradation. Letters were set by skilled compositors, inked and pressed onto paper. But wait: pre-existing inks were water-based and did not adhere to the type. No problem for our hero. Gutenberg set about inventing an oil-based ink, sticky like varnish, which would produce a crisp letterform on the paper.

All the elements were now in place to herald a revolution.

Gutenberg’s best known masterpiece is his 42 line bible, first sold at the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair. Although it was an expensive two-volume affair, it caused a sensation. He wanted to keep his invention a secret, but the cat was out of the bag and by the end of the century more than 2,500 printing presses were hard at work throughout Europe. The public appetite for printed material proved, then as now, insatiable.

The first books were religious, but it didn’t take long for printers to branch out into classic literary texts, scholarly works, manuals, pattern books, story books. As more were published, books became cheaper, literacy increased and people sought entertainment. Just 23 years after Gutenberg’s bible, the first English printer, William Caxton, published Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For the first time, English readers could read in their own language the exploits of characters they recognised from everyday life: the Miller, the Squire and the Wife of Bath.

Similarly, in Italy in 1472 Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy was published and helped to fix the Tuscan dialect as ‘Italian’, even though 14th century Dante considered himself a speaker of Latin. Books introduced the notion of spelling, helped to stabilise and standardise languages which in turn gave rise to a sense of nationalism.

Most importantly of all, the press had the power to spread ideas and information accurately. Scientific, cultural, technical, artistic, religious and political ideas could be shared and debated by many. The works of great philosophers such as Martin Luther and humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam could inform people, and for the first time almost gave them permission to think for themselves, armed with the information to make up their own minds. Governments and institutions couldn’t easily hide behind propaganda and self-serving lies anymore – although many still try.

As words became attributable authorship became important. Copyright laws were established to protect intellectual property. Reputations and fortunes were made. They still are.

News-sheets took a little longer to get going. In gossipy Venice a cheap newssheet costing one gazeta (hence Gazette) was circulated in the early 1500s, but it wasn’t until 1605 that what is widely regarded as the world’s first newspaper was published in Strasbourg with the least catchy title ever: Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien.

In 1900, author Mark Twain wrote: “The world concedes without hesitation or dispute that Gutenberg’s invention is incomparably the mightiest event that has ever happened … Whatever the world is, today, good and bad together, that is what Gutenberg’s invention has made it: for from that source it has all come … the evil wrought through his mighty invention is immeasurably outbalanced by the good it has brought …”

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