Johannes Gutenberg – Man of the Milennium

The Gutenberg Bible
© Wikipedia User NYC Wanderer

On February 3, 1468, German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg – or simply Johannes Gutenberg – passed away. His invention of mechanical movable type printing started the Printing Revolution and is widely regarded as the most important event of the modern period.

The art of printing presumably laid its foundation in Asia around the 6th century, when Buddhistic priests in China built printing block made of wood to print religious illustrations on silk or rag paper. The oldest preserved printed books date back to 868 A.D. and were made by Buddhistic monks in Dun-Huang in western China. In the 14th century, paper became more common in Europe, it became cheaper and large quantities could be produced. The high developed printing techniques from Asia were imported and spread across the continent, while mostly religious illustrations, images concerning the raging plague to warn the citizens, or artistic pictures like these of the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer. In the following years, the printing techniques were continuously developed and during the 15th century, the engraving of copper was commonly used for printing on paper.

The development of further printing techniques was required to distribute a great amount of information to an even greater amount of people. Due to the fact that only a low percentage of the overall society in Europe could read or even write, images were first used to transmit these information. Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was born in the late 1390’s. The son of a merchant, himself being a very curious and inventive goldsmith developed a new casting technique for mobile letters. In Strasbourg, he began to experiment with mobile letters at around 1434 after working for publishers where he copied several books by hand and studied various printing methods through this job. The stamp procedure as it was common during these years was so complicated that copying books by practiced writers was less time-consuming and more efficient. Gutenberg began to analyze the problems of quick, inexpensive and easy printing and came to realize that everything a human being needed to express could be achieved with only 24 letters of the Latin alphabet and some punctuations. He produced precise letters made of metal, to overcome the difficulty that all letters had to be alike to appear on the paper equally, which also had the advantage that all letters could be used many times during the printing processes.

These and several other adjustments were made to perfect his printing methods, like the development of the printing press to bring the letters on the paper equally. A great advantage for Gutenberg were his goldsmith experiences and he was soon able to produce 100 letters in just an hour. To adjust the printing template, all letters were placed by the typesetter and the printing block was tinted in ink and placed in the printing press, in which a lightly moistened paper sheet was printed.

The first assumed printed work by Johannes Gutenberg depicted a German poem followed by several grammar books, letters of indulgence and astronomical works. The most important and most influential work depicted by far the Latin Bible, also called Gutenberg-Bibel or B42, because it was printed with 42 lines per column. The whole piece contained over 1200 pages and was to be produced 189 times. Due to Gutenberg’s immense success with the projects he became widely known an honored for his extraordinary achievement. The Bible reached an iconic status due to its beauty and sophistication. It depicted the start of the Gutenberg Revolution.

Talking about the history of printing, you may enjoy a video discussion on yovisto about the future of digital print and Google’s ambitions to digitize the world’s books.

References and Further Reading:

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