Johannes Gutenberg was an important goldsmith, blacksmith, publisher, and inventor of the late 14th to middle 15th century. He is credited with introducing the first mechanical moveable type printing press in Europe.
The invention started the Printing Revolution and helped usher in the modern period of human history. His invention was crucial in propelling several movements in Europe including the Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment.
Johannes Gutenberg was born sometime between 1395 and 1398 C.E. in Mainz, Germany. He was the youngest son of a patrician named Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden. Patricians were considered to be wealthy and political elite people or families at the time.
His mother was Else Wyrich the daughter of a shopkeeper in Mainz. Researchers believe his father worked as a goldsmith with the archiepiscopal mint and as a cloth trader.
His father’s experience with metal and coinage were seen as a very technical skill in the 15th century. Like many children throughout early history, they learned their father’s or mother’s trade starting at a young age. Gutenberg was no different and learned his early goldsmith and blacksmith skills from his father.
During 1411 C.E. there was an uprising against the patricians in Mainz. After the uprising some 100 patrician families were forced to move out of Mainz. Historians believe that the family moved to Eltville am Rhein to a villa his mother had inherited.
There is documentation that Gutenberg enrolled into the University of Erfurt in 1418 C.E. His father passed away in 1419 C.E. and left a considerable inheritance to the family. Not much is known of his life for the next 15 years.
Gutenberg moved to Strasbourg in 1434 C.E. where he lived with some of his mother’s relatives. During this time he worked as a goldsmith for the Strasbourg militia. He began training wealthy tradesmen to polish gems in 1437 C.E.
While Gutenberg was in Strasbourg he started to work on inventing the moveable type printing press. He had been familiar with making books from previous projects. He left Strasbourg returning to Mainz in 1448 C.E. Here he had to borrow money to work on his invention. By 1450 C.E. he had finished a prototype of the machine.
The difference in his printing press was remarkable. Gutenberg used moveable metal type pieces instead of wooden or ceramic blocks used in Asia. He also introduced oi-based ink to Europe which aided in the printing process of using moveable metal type.
He printed his first piece of literature which was a German poem. From that day forward, Gutenberg began printing important items like Latin Grammars and indulgences for the Catholic Church.
In 1452 C.E. Gutenberg printed the first mas produced bible called the 42-line Bible or simply the Gutenberg Bible. He printed only 180 copies of the Bible. Today, there are very few in existence and command upwards of $35,000,000 at auction.
Gutenberg ran into problems with his investors who were Johann Fust. His investors took him to court and sued for back payments and interest. They won in 1455 C.E. and were awarded the Bible printing press. Gutenberg was suddenly bankrupt.
In 1462 C.E. there was the Mainz Diocesan Feud. The town was ravaged by Archbishop Adolph von Nassau. This led to Gutenberg being exiled once again.
He was gaining in age when in 1465 C.E. his invention was recognized by von Nassau. The Archbishop honored Gutenberg with a stipend, food, and wine tax-free.
He died in 1468 C.E. with his contributions mostly unknown. Gutenberg was buried at a Franciscan church in Mainz which was later destroyed along with his grave site.
The legacy of Gutenberg and his invention of the moveable metal type printing press are impressive. Time Life Magazine named his invention the most important innovation of the second millennium.
His printing press was powerful in educating the middle class in Europe. Before his invention, the wealthy only had access to printed or hand written books.
Without Gutenberg’s printing press some believe the Science Revolution, Age of Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Reformation would have been stifled for centuries.
A moveable metal type printing press
42-line Bible also known as the Gutenberg Bible