The Xerox of its day – Gutenberg’s world changing invention

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Books and the printed word have been around for thousands of years of human history. But the mass production of writing is much more recent.

Until the 15th century, producing text was a laborious and expensive task.

It was done slowly and manually by hand. Few people possessed books. Only the wealthy could afford them, and not many of the wealthy were even literate enough to read them.

Gutenberg was not the first person to use printed text instead of handwriting. In parts of Asia, particularly China, Japan, and Korea, there had been forms of printing using ceramic or wood block letters, as well as metal movable print.

Areas of Europe had also adapted these methods. What made Gutenberg’s invention different was that he took existing technologies and combined and improved on them.

Not all that much is known about Johannes Gutenberg’s life, in comparison to some other important historical figures.

Born in 1395 to an upper-class family in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg learned metalworking as a trade and joined a guild. During a struggle among local guilds, he was forced into exile and moved to Strasbourg around 1430.

In his new home, Guttenberg engaged in metalworking and gem cutting, as well as teaching those crafts to students. But his claim to fame is the innovation of new ways of printing.

By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to live in Mainz with a working printing press in operation. The inventor had created a process for mass-producing movable metal type, using oil-based ink and a wooden printing press. Using this process, Gutenberg had found a way to generate books and documents on a mass scale.

Gutenberg’s work attracted investors, in particular, a wealthy merchant named Johann Fust. Gutenberg got to work printing a wide range of publications, many for the Church.

Under Fust’s backing, Gutenberg produced one of his most well-known publications, copies of the tome nicknamed the Gutenberg Bible. By 1455, 180 copies had been made, each Bible having 1,282 pages.

The size and amount of copies made in a relatively short period was unheard of at the time. Each copy sold for approximately a three years’ average salary.

In 1456 there was a falling out in the business. Fust accused Guttenberg of misusing funds and demanded payment on his substantial loans. Fust sued and won, giving him full control over Gutenberg’s printing facility.

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Gutenberg went bankrupt, although he was able to open another printing workshop a few years later. Gutenberg was eventually honored for his life’s work and awarded additional funds to live on. Still, the inventor was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime.

It’s unclear how much material Gutenberg himself printed and published, as he never put his own name on his work. Little is also known about the rest of Gutenberg’s life. It’s believed that he stopped working as he went blind during the last few months of his life. He died in 1468.

While Gutenberg the man struggled during his life, his printing press technology spread rapidly across Europe and the world. Gutenberg’s work has been credited with an important role in spreading the ideas of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

These big ideas and movements in history were made possible due to the cost-effectiveness of the technology. The printing system drove down the price of books and documents, making them accessible to a much wider audience. With affordability of books, education was easier for the less wealthy to achieve. The result was a gradual increase in literacy and education over time.

It was ultimately so successful that the Gutenberg printing press remained the standard form with some variations until the 19th century.

Many books were still printed this way into the 20th century, until the use of quicker, cheaper techniques and digital technologies took over.

J Mark Shiffer

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