Printing in Germany

Johann Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, some time around 1397. Little is known about his early years, but it is clear that he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Gutenberg was the right man because of his familiarity with the craft of the goldsmith and die maker. He was in the right place because Mainz was a cultural and commercial center. It was that right time because the Renaissance thirst for knowledge was creating a growing market for books that could not be satisfied with the traditional handwritten manuscripts.

Handwritten manuscripts were made to order and were usually expensive. They were laboriously copied by scribes who had either to read from a manuscript or have it read to them while copying. This process was not only time-consuming, but led to many errors, which had to be corrected.

Adding to the expense was the scarcity and high cost of vellum and parchment. As a result, these handwritten manuscripts were limited to a select few: clergymen, scholars, and wealthy individuals.

A relatively inexpensive means of producing multiple copies of books seems to have been developed just a little before Gutenberg began his experiments with printing. This was the so-called block book whose pages had illustrations and minimal text cut together on the same block. The carved blocks were inked, and images were transferred onto paper in multiples by rubbing or by the use of a screw press. Block books are believed to have been made for semi-literate, preaching friars who brought the word of God to the urban working class and the poor.

Gutenberg's genius was realizing that printing would be more efficient if, instead of using a single woodblock to print an entire page, the individual letters were cast as separate blocks and then assembled into pages. In this manner, pages could be corrected more rapidly, and, after printing, the type could be cleaned and reused.