Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press by developing the technology of printing with movable metal type. The printing press ushered in a cultural revolution and made written materials more widely available at a lower cost.

Summary of Event

A concise, factual account of the invention of printing with movable type is not possible because surmises far outnumber facts. The few early printed works bearing dates and names are of little help in identifying early experimenters. [kw]Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press (c. 1450) [kw]Printing Press, Gutenberg Pioneers the (c. 1450) [kw]Press, Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing (c. 1450) Printing;Germany Typography;Germany Gutenberg, Johann Germany;c. 1450: Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press[3200] Communications;c. 1450: Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press[3200] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1450: Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press[3200] Literature;c. 1450: Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press[3200] Science and technology;c. 1450: Gutenberg Pioneers the Printing Press[3200] Gutenberg, Johann Coster, Laurens Janszoon Fust, Johann Schöffer, Peter

Wang Jie (Wang Chieh) used the first block print in China in 868 to produce the Diamond Sutra; in the eleventh century, his fellow countryman Bi Sheng Bi Sheng (Pi Sheng) arranged molded and baked clay characters on a frame for printing. Except in Arabic Spain, the West did not make paper until 1270, in Fabriano, Italy; Germany did not begin the process until the fourteenth century.

Gutenberg examines his first proof.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Between the painstaking copying of manuscripts by hand and the earliest printing with movable type that imitated their calligraphy, an intermediate process of “block books” or xylographica appeared. As early as 1418, pictures were carved in wood and printed in thin brownish ink on one side of a leaf. Later, descriptive text accompanied the picture, and printing was done on both sides of the paper in improved ink made of pine shavings and soot. Examples of block books are the Biblia pauperum (poor man’s Bible), the Apocalypse, and the Ars moriendi (the art of dying). Between the middle and end of the fifteenth century, about thirty thousand editions of “cradle books,” or incunabula (so called because they were Europe’s earliest printed books), appeared in Europe.

Unlikely credit has been given to Laurens Janszoon Coster Coster, Laurens Janszoon for the invention of movable type in 1423; however, contemporary documents fail to mention him. A 1570 book by Adrian Young, Batavia, gave Coster credit, but most modern scholars ignore this shadowy claim. Although no extant book bears his name, a more plausible inventor of printing with movable type is Johann Gutenberg, from Mainz, Germany. During a time when he was working in Strasbourg between 1430 and 1440, he seems to have been adapting the prelum, or winepress, for printing. Although he produced fewer than thirty works, he devoted years to mechanical perfection of the new process of printing. Among his alleged works are a thirty-six-line Bible; a forty-two-line Bible (the Mainz, Mazarin, or Gutenberg Bible Bible, Gutenberg ); Catholicon, a theological grammar of Johannes Balbus; two indulgences (for 1454 and 1455); and some calendars, including one for the year 1448.

Supporting Gutenberg as the inventor of printing are court records and documents of Mainz, which show his need for funds and detail his lawsuits regarding the press. In 1448, a loan made by Johann Fust Fust, Johann facilitated the printing with movable type of the forty-two-line or Gutenberg Bible between 1452 and 1455, antedating the thirty-six-line Bible of 1459-1460. That Gutenberg’s press produced the early calendars of 1447 or 1448, and the 1454 and 1455 indulgence slips (used to issue indulgences) seems plausible because of the similarity of type. The appearance of printed indulgence slips has tempted some to suggest that the Papacy was planning a great retaliatory campaign against the Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The papal legate in Mainz supposedly ordered both Gutenberg and Johann Fust to print indulgences to help defray the expenses of the campaign.

A lawsuit of 1455 indicates that Johann Fust sued to recover his expenses incurred in the loans he made to Gutenberg. Around this time, Fust and Gutenberg’s former chief workman, Peter Schöffer, Schöffer, Peter formed a new printing firm. Before this setback, however, Gutenberg’s press yielded 210 copies of the Bible using 290 different typefaces. From 1455 to 1460, Gutenberg used equipment supplied by his new patron, Dr. Humery of Mainz. The 1460 Catholicon marks the end of Gutenberg’s supposed work. In that year, he accepted a court position offered by the archbishop of Mainz, leaving Fust and Schöffer dominant in the new art in that city.

The chief credit given to Fust and Schöffer derives from their 1457 Psalter, the first book whose colophon dates and names its printer. Some scholars claim its U and V capitals link it to the 1454 and 1455 indulgence slips. The Psalter contains black and red print and blue initials, an innovation since earlier rubrication had been done by hand. In addition, the woodcuts in the Psalter are delicate and profuse. Fust and Schöffer followed this work in 1462 by a forty-eight-line Bible. From 1466 until his death, Schöffer worked alone. He was known for his use of marginal notes, Greek printed characters, and spacing between lines. A poster of his—the first of its kind—that advertised printed books shows that he had become a large-scale businessman.

In Cologne in 1466, Ulrich Zell Zell, Ulrich produced perhaps the first printed Latin classic, Cicero’s De officiis. Elsewhere in Germany, Anthony Koberger Koberger, Anthony published the Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493, using much illustration and both Gothic and Roman typefaces. In Augsburg, Erhard Ratdolt printed missals and ecclesiastical books with border designs and engraved initials, such as his Obsequiale Augustense (1487).

In Italy, two German clerics, Konrad Sweinheim Sweinheim, Konrad and Arnold Pannartz, Pannartz, Arnold established presses in a Subiaco monastery (1461) and in Rome (1467). These originators foreshadowed the Humanist Aldus Manutius, the Elder, most famous of all Italian printers. In Venice from 1485 until about 1505, he printed Greek and Latin editions of works by Aristotle, Aristophanes, Bion, Moschus, and others. His small pocket-size books of cheap quality and legible italic typeface helped to disseminate learning to the less wealthy classes.

A Frenchman, Nicolaus Jenson, Jenson, Nicolaus studied in Mainz and worked in Venice in the 1460’. Printing in France itself produced the early names of Jean Heynlin and Guillaume Fichet of the Sorbonne, and of others such as Ulrich Gering, Martin Krantz, and Michael Freiburger. In 1470, a volume of the letters of Gasparino Barzizi of Bergamo appeared followed by the first Bible printed in France, in 1476.

Printing in Spain started in 1468, when a Barcelona press produced a grammar book. Later, Lambert Palmart of Valencia published its city laws during 1477-1490 in fifteen volumes. Spain produced mostly ecclesiastical works, with some poetry and romances.

In the Low Countries, the Brothers of the Common Life set up a press at Marienthal in 1468; by 1490, more than sixty establishments acknowledged their supervision. In Bruges, Colard Mansion taught William Caxton, Caxton, William an Englishman who translated and printed Raoul Le Fever’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1475. By 1477, Caxton returned to England to print the country’s first book, significantly in the vernacular.


Within fifty years of its invention, printing by movable type spread over Europe to become—as a vehicle for the mass dissemination of information—one of the most significant events in the history of Western culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. Reprint. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980. Contains a good introduction to the basics of printing technology along with a survey of printing’s history, placing the invention of printing and the incunable era in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Martin. Aldus Manutius: Printer and Publisher of Renaissance Venice. London: British Library, 1995. A concise introduction to the works of Aldus and his contributions to the development of printing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800. Translated by David Gerard. 1976. Reprint. London: Verso, 1997. A study of the transformations that printing brought to book production and the book trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ing, Janet. Johann Gutenberg and His Bible. 2d ed. New York: Typophiles, 1990. A concise, readable account of the evidence concerning Gutenberg and his role in the invention of printing and the production of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Kristian, ed. Incunabula and Their Readers: Printing, Selling, and Using Books in the Fifteenth Century. London: British Library, 2003. An anthology of essays exploring why books became the first mass-produced and mass-marketed commodities in history. Examines the European cultural and economic situation to account for both the possibility and the appeal of print in the fifteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kapr, Albert. Johann Gutenberg: The Man and His Invention. Translated by Douglas Martin. Brookfield, Vt.: Scolar Press, 1996. Covers Gutenberg’s origins, early life, apprenticeship, and travel; the technical problems of inventing the printing press; his business; and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim and Mainz. Rochester, N.Y.: L. Hart, 1950. A short biography of Peter Schöffer and his pioneering role in the development of printing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Man, John. Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. At once a macro and a micro study, the author describes the international sociopolitical background for the invention of the printing press, the background of key fifteenth century cities, and the individual biographical background of Gutenberg himself. Practical technical details of the construction and use of the printing press are provided alongside broadly focused arguments about its global effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Painter, George D. William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. A complete biography of England’s first printer from his first career as a merchant-trader to his later years when he set up a printing establishment in England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scholderer, Victor. Johann Gutenberg: The Inventor of Printing. 2d ed. London: British Museum, 1970. An overview of Gutenberg’s life and accomplishments.

Categories: History