Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press

Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press

The market of printed books might still be strong and the rise of e-books might be slower than many expected. But printed papers and magazines already feel the heavy burden of the digital age increasing, the more electronic mobile devices spread around the globe.

As we still are in the early stages of this new digital century, this could be the right time to look back on an earlier transformation of the means we use to convey written information. A transformation that helped to shape the last 550 years: printing.

Cultural Reading Habits

Even when we read books or magazines on our digital devices, most of the time, they still mirror pages and printed structures. The digital age might be one of enormous pace but some cultural practices still take longer to change than others.

With your tablet computer, your costly designed hardcover, and your paperback novel in mind, imagine that 600 years ago, a book was usually made from animal skin (both cover and pages) and had to be handwritten. Picture it: it would be your job to copy, say, the Bible, maybe ten times, and others should be able to read it. Even though books and written products were more widespread than we usually think, try to conceive of the sheer explosion of written language throughout Europe that must have occurred after the invention of the printing press.

When and Where Was the Printing Press Invented?

The exact origins of the first printing press and its inventor remain unknown, but the oldest documented printed text is traced back to China in the first millennium A.D. Specifically, the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text from Dunhuang, China, is believed to be the oldest known printed book, dating to around 868 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty. This historical artifact was produced using a printing process called “block printing,” which involved the use of wooden hand-groups of type blocks to create reversed images.

Notably, Dunhuang has yielded various surviving texts from this early printing era, showcasing a diverse range of subjects. These include a printed calendar from around A.D. 877, mathematical charts, vocabulary guides, etiquette instructions, materials for children’s education, dictionaries, and almanacs.

This period marked a transition from rolled-up scrolls to book-formatted texts. Concurrently, similar printing techniques, such as woodblock printing, were also employed in Japan and Korea.

Printing in Korea

Around 971 AD in Zhejiang, China, printers utilized carved wooden blocks to produce a print of the vast Buddhist canon known as the Tripitaka, employing an astounding 130,000 blocks, one for each page. Early attempts at movable type followed, including the use of ideograms chiseled in wood and a brief but inefficient experiment with ceramic characters.

During the same period, Chinese innovations reached the Korean rulers, the Goryeo, via imperial imports. In 1087 AD, facing a Khitan invasion, the Goryeo government initiated block printing to create its Tripitaka, possibly to safeguard Korean Buddhist identity. This endeavor, completed by 1251 AD, set the stage for future developments.

In 1234 AD, facing the challenge of printing a lengthy Buddhist text, “The Prescribed Ritual Text of the Past and Present,” the Goryeo rulers sought the expertise of civil minister Choe Yun-ui. Faced with the impracticality of using numerous woodblocks, Choe adapted a method from earlier Chinese attempts at movable type. He cast 3-dimensional characters in metal, arranged them in a frame, coated them with ink, and used them to press sheets of paper. This innovative approach, completed in 1250 AD, eliminated the need for constant chiseling of blocks, marking a significant advancement in printing technology.

Johannes Gutenberg

In 1439, the earliest mention of a mechanized printing press in Europe appeared in a lawsuit in Strasbourg, detailing the construction of a machine intended for J. Gutenberg and his associates. Johannes Gutenberg was a German craftsman and inventor born in the 14th century in Mainz. He is often called “the father of printing” and is credited with pioneering a revolutionary printing method.

His groundbreaking invention involved several key elements, including the development of a metal alloy with the ability to melt easily and cool rapidly, resulting in a durable and reusable type. Gutenberg also formulated an oil-based ink characterized by its thickness, ensuring optimal adherence to metal type and efficient transfer to vellum or paper. He also introduced a novel printing press, likely adapted from equipment used in wine, oil, or paper production, which applied firm and even pressure to the printing surfaces. Prior to Gutenberg’s innovation, the European technique for stamping letters on surfaces and woodblock printing lacked these crucial features, marking his contribution as a transformative leap in the history of printing technology.

Gutenberg’s Press

Central to Gutenberg’s innovation was the substitution of wood with metal and the transition from printing blocks to individual letter blocks, marking the advent of the European iteration of movable type. To ensure the widespread availability of type and accommodate various printing stages, Gutenberg introduced the concept of replica casting. This involved creating letters in reverse on brass, then generating replicas by pouring molten lead into these molds, creating metal type in large quantities.

Some scholars suggest that Gutenberg might have employed a sand-casting system to form metal molds. The letters were meticulously crafted to interlock seamlessly, forming even lines and consistent columns on flat surfaces.

The success of Gutenberg’s method hinged on his formulation of ink, specially designed to adhere to metal rather than wood. Additionally, he refined a technique for flattening printing paper by ingeniously incorporating a winepress into his printing press design. Traditionally used for pressing grapes and olives, this adapted winepress played a pivotal role in achieving uniform and smooth printing surfaces.

Recent Studies Challenging the Innovation of the Gutenberg Press

While Gutenberg has long been credited with inventing the punch-matrix system for casting metal type, recent computer-aided analyses of his printed works in the early 2000s have challenged this attribution. The punch-matrix system involves engraving characters on a hard metal rod, known as the punch, which is then used to strike an impression into a softer metal plate called the matrix. Molten metal is poured into the matrix, creating virtually identical pieces of type.

However, scrutiny of Gutenberg’s printed materials revealed notable variations in characters, such as the letter ‘i,’ inconsistent with the punch-matrix system. Some scholars now propose that this method emerged several years after Gutenberg’s death. This reevaluation prompts a closer examination of the intricate printing processes during Gutenberg’s time, including the major role of his renowned printing press and movable type in revolutionizing the printing industry and the mass production of uniform printed matter (pamphlets, newspapers, and books).

The Printing Press – Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the  Information Age – Third Edition

The Gutenberg Bible

In 1452, Johannes Gutenberg produced the singular book crafted in his workshop: a Bible. Approximately 180 copies of the 1,300-paged Gutenberg Bible were printed, with as many as 60 produced on vellum. Each page of the Bible exhibited 42 lines of text in Gothic type, organized in double columns, and included certain letters in color.

The production of the Bible involved the use of 300 distinct molded letter blocks and consumed 50,000 sheets of paper. Despite the passage of time, numerous fragments of these books have endured. There exist 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, along with four intact copies of the vellum version.

But, while created using a brand new technology, the books themselves were designed to pretty much look like the Bible the customers were used to. To be able to print a series of different books, Gutenberg not only had to invent a moveable set of type, he also had to find a new kind of ink, as traditional water-based inks would not work in the printing press.

What he eventually used was actually not ink, but varnish. In his inventions, Gutenberg drew inspiration and even borrowed techniques from the arts and crafts that surrounded him and his resident city of Mainz was fertile grounds for his undertaking.

Moveable Type

Not to take away from his well-deserved fame, but Gutenberg did, of course, not actually invent printing itself. There had been other forms before, but as his predecessors did not use moveable type, any mistakes made could not be corrected. Gutenberg came up with moveable metal letters, that would be pressed onto the paper with the exact same pressure, resulting in a text that would be much clearer and even than handwritten words could ever be.

This is another brilliant feature of Gutenberg’s idea of using a press. To use his invention, he even had to overcome such hurdles as creating a multitude of absolutely identical copies of each letter of the alphabet, meaning: the different letters as well as all the copies had to have the same height if you didn’t want to risk damaging the paper. Further, using the printing press, one could make sure that the text would be printed in the exact same place on both sides of a page.

Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press

© Pixabay

Being a talented entrepreneur and salesman, as well as a great inventor and craftsman, Gutenberg not only helped to create the basis of our written communication, he also spread his works and thus the technology. What he sold were actually not bound books, but packets of loose pages. That is why most of the early printed books do not look alike.

Steam-Powered Printing Presses

While hand-operated presses persisted and underwent refinements until the eighteenth century, they remained relatively slow and labor-intensive. The game-changing innovation came with the invention of the industrial cylinder press by Friedrich Koenig in the early 1800s. This press revolutionized printing dynamics, enabling the rapid dissemination of radical ideas and innovations across regions and overseas.

Koenig’s design incorporated two pivotal concepts: the utilization of steam power to drive the machine and the introduction of rotary metal cylinders, allowing simultaneous printing on both sides of each page. In the early 1800s, Koenig, a German inventor, patented his design after moving to London. Collaborating with German watchmaker Andreas Bauer, they established a workshop and began building and testing the new printing presses. The Times newspaper became their first customer, acquiring two machines in 1814.

The introduction of the press was kept secret, avoiding conflict with the paper’s pressmen, who opposed machinery that could threaten their jobs. The industrial cylinder press, capable of producing 1,100 pages per hour, marked a remarkable success for Koenig and Bauer. This innovation significantly outpaced competitors in printing and labor efficiency, positioning The Times at the forefront. Despite a falling out with sponsors, Koenig returned to Germany in 1817 to continue his work, while Koenig & Bauer evolved into a major company, emerging as a leading manufacturer of printing presses well into the 20th century.

Significance of the Gutenberg’s Invention and the Printing Revolution

Before the advent of the printing press, the creation of writings and illustrations required meticulous manual effort. Various materials like clay, papyrus, wax, and parchment were used for transcribing books. This task wasn’t entrusted to just anyone; rather, it was typically reserved for scribes residing and working in monasteries.

Throughout the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, book ownership was limited to monasteries, educational institutions, or the exceptionally wealthy. The majority of books had religious themes, and, in rare cases, a fortunate family could afford to possess a book, and that was often a copy of the Bible.

Gutenberg’s press initiated the mass production of books, significantly broadening access to literature. As the printing press spread to Italy and beyond, the trade in printed matter flourished, making books more accessible. By the 1490s, Italian printers had made Venice the book-printing capital of Europe, and the cost of printed works became more affordable.

The impact was profound—while only around 30 percent of European adults were literate before Gutenberg’s invention, the widespread availability of mass produced books contributed to a significant rise in literacy rates across the continent. The printing press played a crucial role in accelerating the rediscovery and sharing of knowledge, contributing to the cultural transformation known as the Renaissance.

Today’s Methods

Offset printing, also known as offset lithography, is a mass-production printing method where images on metal plates are transferred to rubber blankets or rollers and then onto the print media, typically paper. The advantage of this method lies in the fact that the print media doesn’t directly contact the metal plates, prolonging the life of the plates.

Additionally, the flexible rubber adapts well to various print media surfaces, making it suitable for materials like canvas, cloth, or wood. Offset printing is prized for its consistently high image quality and is versatile for small, medium, or large-scale printing projects.

There are two prevalent types of such printing machines used today: sheet-fed offset printing and web offset printing. With the first type, individual pages of paper are fed into the machine, which can handle pre-cut pages or trim them after printing.

Web offset printing, on the other hand, employs larger, high-speed machines fed with large paper rolls, and individual pages are separated and trimmed after printing. This method proves more cost-effective for high-volume publications with frequently changing content, such as metropolitan newspapers. The offset press has also revolutionized the printing industry and made it possible to deliver enormous quantities of printed materials efficiently and the cost of a printed copy is much lower.

This is just one in a series of fascinating posts we’ve done on German history. If you’re interested in learning more, check out all the other articles we have for you!

FAQs about the famous Gutenberg invention (printing press)

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the printing press.

When was the invention of the printing press?

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440 in Mainz, Germany. This marked a significant turning point in the history of printing and had a profound impact on the dissemination of information and the accessibility of books.

Was the printing press in Germany or China?

The printing press was invented in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg. Although China had earlier innovations in printing technology several centuries before that, including block printing, Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press with metal type was a distinct and groundbreaking development in the 15th century in Europe.

Where is the oldest printing press in the world?

The oldest surviving printing press in the world is believed to be Johannes Gutenberg’s press. However, the exact location of this press is uncertain. Some historical accounts suggest that it may be housed in the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. The Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed using the press, is also considered one of the oldest surviving printed books.

What is job printing?

Job printing, a term from the nineteenth century, involves the use of display type and typically produces small-scale print materials, such as tickets, letterheads, notices, invoices, and more. While often overlooked in studies of printing history, job printing is crucial for historians exploring the daily life of ordinary citizens, providing accurate and unbiased insights into various aspects of society through tangible items like ticket stubs and timetables.

Summing Up: Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press

From its origins in East Asia, the printing press paved the way for monumental shifts, including the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the widespread dissemination of knowledge through affordable printed materials and education. This innovation triggered a cascade of changes that continue to influence nearly every aspect of our contemporary world.

Gutenberg’s legacy is a testament to the enduring impact of technological innovations in shaping the history of the printing press in Europe. If you’d like to learn more about German history and culture, come check us out at SmarterGerman!