Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, some time around 1397. Little is know 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 the diemaker. He was in the right place because Mainz was a cultural and commercial center. It was the 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 corrected. Adding to the expense was the scarcity and high cost of vellum and parchment. As a result, 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 the screw press. Block books were believed to have been made for semiliterate, preaching friars who brought the word of God to the urban working class and the poor.
Insight and Innovation
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 made up faster, errors could be corrected more rapidly, and, after printing, the type could be cleaned and reused.
Using his knowledge of die making, Gutenberg created several pieces of type, not in wood but in metal. It was this process of printing from cast type and not the process of printing per se—which already existed—that was Gutenberg’s great contribution to the graphic arts. Technically speaking, Gutenberg’s invention, the letterpress, was so well conceived that it remained the dominant printing process for almost five hundred years.
With his chief assistant, Peter Schoeffer, and his financial backer, Johann Fust, Gutenberg was now ready to set up shop and embark on great masterpiece, the forty-two-line Bible, so called because its columns were forty-two lines long. It is a great irony that just before the publication of the forty-two-line Bible around 1455, Gutenberg seems to have lost control of his establishment for the nonpayment of his debt to Fust. The operation was then taken over by Fust and Schoeffer and unfortunately, there is no evidence as to whether Gutenberg oversaw the completion of the job or gained any financial rewards for his efforts.
After the judgement, it is believed that Gutenberg set up another shop and continued printing books and other materials for another ten years. In 1465, he received a generous pension from the local archbishop but died three years later. According to an early source, he was buried in the Franciscan church
Continuing a Legacy
After Fust and Schoeffer took over Gutenberg’s shop, the first book they printed and published was the Mainz Psalter of 1457. This psalter was notable for a number of reasons: it was the first book with a colophon showing the printer’s name, location, date of publication, and printer’s mark or device. It was also the first book in which the display initials were printed in color rather than painted by hand. The partners printed a number of important books, two of which were the Latin Bible of 1462 and a Cicero of 1465.
While on a book-selling trip to Paris in 1466, Fust died of the plague. After Fust’s death, Schoeffer continued publishing until his own death in 1502.