The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, a German inventor, blacksmith, goldsmith and publisher, in the late 1430s. The standing device used moveable metal type, which Gutenberg also developed the mould (known as the matrix) for, and these two innovations enabled the production of books and documents at a higher rate and cheaper cost than had been seen before in Europe.
Gutenberg Press / Pixabay
Gutenberg was born in around 1400, in the German city of Mainz, to a cloth merchant and his wife. His father also worked with the ecclesiastic mint, so Gutenberg grew up learning the trade of goldsmithing. After his family moved to Eltville am Rhein following an uprising in Mainz, Gutenberg attended the University of Efrurt, and then moved to Strasbourg. In 1439 Gutenberg is purported to have been involved in a financial lawsuit, and offered to share his knowledge of the printing press as a way to satisfy unhappy investors, ultimately revealing his invention in 1440.
The 15th century formed the perfect conditions for the invention of the printing press in Europe, as working practices were becoming more efficient, and an increasingly educated middle class required an increase in the production of books and written work that traditional hand-written techniques could not keep up with. Gutenberg was able to employ existing technologies, such as the existence of paper, ink, woodblock printing and the screw press, and combine and adapt these in order to create his revolutionary printing press. A key element of this was separating the typesetting and printing processes; having begun in around 1436, Gutenberg used his knowledge as a goldsmith to create the matrix, which could mass-produce the lead-alloy type pieces which are still used today.
Johannes Gutenberg / Wikipedia
The press was operated by a compositor, who arranged the metal type into a wooden frame, or galley, with each galley constituting a page of text. The galleys were then arranged face-up in a frame, which lay on the flat bed of the machine. The letters were then inked using leather pads, and dampened paper was clamped between two frames called the tympan and frisket, which attached to the bed with a hinge. The framed paper was then folded over the inked type, and rolled under a flat metal plate called a platen, which clamped down when a handle was turned, thus imprinting the ink onto the paper. Once the platen was lifted, the tympan and frisket was rolled back, and the printed paper could be removed.
Gutenberg’s press was finalised by 1450, with a German poem being one of the first pieces to be mass-produced using it. Gutenberg set up a workshop at Hof Humbrecht in Mainz, and in 1452 commenced the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, as well as non-religious texts. Around 180 copies of the Bible were printed over the next three years, marking the advent of the mass-production of books. Gutenberg also trialled colour printing in several copies of this Bible, which is still renowned for its artistry and historical significance.
The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press is widely regarded as a momentous moment in the medieval era, and is a key element in the Renaissance and scientific revolution, as it facilitated greater education for the masses.