Special: How Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press

On the 547th death anniversary of German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, we look back at his contributions to the mechanisation of the printing process, which went on to create a revolution...

Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing technology in Europe sometime around 1450. Among his Gutenberg's many contributions to printing are

- The invention of a process for mass-producing movable type
- The use of oil-based ink
- The use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of the period.

Johannes Gutenberg
A sculpture of Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg combined the above elements into a practical system which allowed the mass production of printed books and was economically viable for printers and readers alike. His method for making type is traditionally considered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type. The alloy was a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony that melted at a relatively low temperature for faster and more economical casting, cast well, and created a durable type.

The usage of the screw press, which enabled direct pressure to be applied on flat-plane and used in a wide variety of tasks was popular during Gutenberg's time. Introduced by the Romans in the 1st Centry AD, it was commonly employed in agricultrual production, which included, pressing wine grapes, olive oil fruit, an integral part of mediterranean and medieval diet. The device was also used as a cloth press for printing patterns. Gutenberg may have also been inspired by the paper presses which had spread through the German lands since the late 14th century and which worked on the same mechanical principles.

Johannes Gutenberg
(Above and below) Movable type alphabet blocks used in Johannes Guteberg's printing process

Johannes Gutenberg adapted the construction so that the pressing power exerted by the platen on the paper was now applied both evenly and with the required sudden elasticity. To speed up the printing process, he introduced a movable undertable with a plane surface on which the sheets could be swiftly changed.

Johannes Gutenberg

To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what is considered one of his most ingenious inventions, a special matrix enabling the quick and precise molding of new type blocks from a uniform template. His type case is estimated to have contained around 290 separate letter boxes, most of which were required for special characters, ligatures, punctuation marks, and so forth.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than the previously used water-based inks. As printing material he used both paper and vellum (high-quality parchment). In the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg made a trial of coloured printing for a few of the page headings, present only in some copies. A later work, the Mainz Psalter of 1453, presumably designed by Gutenberg but published under the imprint of his successors Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, had elaborate red and blue printed initials.

The new era in print ushered in by the Internet is a distant mirror to Gutenberg's work which similarly revolutionized the printing process.

Gutenberg bible
A page from the Gutenberg Bible, which has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality

For years, book printing was considered a true art form. Typesetting, or the placement of the characters on the page, including the use of ligatures, was passed down from master to apprentice. In Germany, the art of typesetting was termed the "black art", in allusion to the ink-covered printers. It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it easy to get similar results more quickly and with less physical labor. Some practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

A Gutenberg-style printing press on display at the Gutenberg museum
A Gutenberg-style printing press on display at the Gutenberg museum

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanics of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press were still essentially unchanged, although new materials in its construction, amongst other innovations, had gradually improved its printing efficiency. By 1800, Lord Stanhope had built a press completely from cast iron which reduced the force required by 90%, while doubling the size of the printed area. With a capacity of 480 pages per hour, it doubled the output of the old style press.

In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, while Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.

Did you know?
The invention of the printing press actually predates Johannes Gutenberg.  Chinese printer Bi Sheng invented and developed the world's first known movable type printing press technology between 1041 and 1048. This technology was later transmitted into Korea, the Imperial Chinese tributary state by the Han Chinese.

Korean inventors created the world's first metal movable-type system for printing in 1234 during the reign of the Goryeo Dynasty, which occured 216 years before Gutenberg's version of metal movable type. A Korean book titled Jikji was printed using this techonology in 1377 and its technique has been described by the French scholar Henri-Jean Martin as 'extremely similar to Gutenberg's'.

The concept of movable type was not entirely new in the 15th century; the idea of creating a text by reusing individual characters, was well understood and employed in pre-Gutenberg Europe had been cropping up since the 12th century and possibly before. The known examples range from Germany (Prüfening inscription) to England (letter tiles) to Italy. However, the various techniques employed (imprinting, punching and assembling individual letters) did not have the refinement and efficiency needed to become widely accepted.

Honourable mentions
>> Project Gutenberg, the oldest digital library, commemorates Johannes Gutenberg's name
>> Printing was also a factor in the Reformation. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely; subsequently he issued broadsheets outlining his anti-indulgences position (certificates of indulgences were one of the first items Gutenberg had printed). The broadsheet contributed to development of the newspaper.
>> Explorer Christopher Columbus had a geographical book (printed by movable types) bought by his father. That book is in a Spanish museum.
>> In space, Johannes Gutenberg is commemorated in the name of the asteroid 777 Gutemberga.
There are many statues of Gutenberg in Germany, including the famous one by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1837) in Mainz, home to the eponymous Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum on the history of early printing. The later publishes the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, the leading periodical in the field.

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