The Story of Johann Gutenberg and His Printing Press

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., Universtity of Tennessee

The period of time around the 1400s saw a lot of changes that helped define the world as we know it today. The year 1455 was one which witnessed a turning point which transformed the modern world, for it was in this year that the communications revolution was born. It all began with the creation of a then-unknown man—Johann Gutenberg’s printing press.

Image of Johann Gutenberg in front of his printing press.
Johann Gutenberg (right) is credited with the invention of the printing press, but not a lot is known about him, with the known facts coming from records of his trials in the Rhineland.
(Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Who Was Johann Gutenberg?

Not a lot is known about Johann Gutenberg, despite the fact that his invention of the printing press was arguably one of the pivotal points on which our modern world stands. 

In fact, most of what is known about him come from records of his legal disputes in the Rhineland, which suggests that he was a practical man, a business-minded entrepreneur. 

From what is known, Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, better known as Johann Gutenberg, was probably born in 1394, in a notable family in the small city of Mainz, Germany, a part of the beautiful Rhineland, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was part of the elite circles of the city and had become an adroit goldsmith, a vocation that provided him with many of the technical skills that he would later use for his invention. Gutenberg had to work on the printing press for a lot of years, and he did so in Mainz, as well as in Strasbourg. 

The fruits of his invention were immense and sweet, but to appreciate them, it is imperative to understand what the world was like until then. 

The World before the Printing Press

Before writing became common, it was the spoken word that was passed along generations, and honing one’s memory, therefore, became an imperative skill.

When writing started to become commonplace, it faced a lot of opposition. In fact, the philosopher Socrates also opposed it, claiming that it would create ‘forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories. 

The written word became the preserve of elite society, those who had acquired the skill of writing. Written texts began to be recorded in the special, holy language of Latin in monasteries and cathedrals, further narrowing access to those who were learned in Latin. Over time, monasteries and cathedrals became repositories of rare, sometimes even unique texts. If a copy was needed, it would be prepared by a scribe, who would attempt to make it as close to the original text as possible.

Despite the fact that these copies were often riddled with errors, such copying was construed as a holy task, and many devoted their lives to it. Over the years, a number of beautiful and rare books have come about in this fashion, the Book of Kells, for instance. 

But even though the entire work of copying books by hand seems to be intent on preventing variations, the world of writing did, in fact, go through a lot of changes. 

A crucial change, touted by some to be even more significant than the introduction of printing, was the shift from scrolls to codices. A codex is the folded or stacked form in which books are seen today, and its introduction greatly reduced the wear and tear caused by rolling and unrolling scrolls, thereby increasing the efficiency and accessibility of the written word. 

Another change, one which came about in the later Middle Ages, was bookselling becoming a much fuller business. As a result, stationery shops started popping up around the young universities of medieval Europe around the year 1350. It was from such shops that scribes would produce the required copies of texts, much like on a ‘print-on-demand’ basis. 

Gutenberg’s Invention

Even though there were precursors to the invention of the print, such as block printing, which had been common in China since the eighth century, it was unlikely that Gutenberg was aware of these when he began his project. 

Having been working for many years on the printing press, Gutenberg shrouding his progress in thick veils of secrecy, calling it das werck der bucher—’the work of the books’ in deliberate equivocacy. It was only after his laborious efforts for many years that he was able to perfect the process. 

For his invention, Gutenberg combined several elements into the process. Even though presses had been in use for centuries to press olives or grapes, or to make paper, bind books, or imprint designs on cloth, he came up with a printing press. Another crucial element was the moveable type. 

Gutenberg's printing press, consisting of a pressing board, a lever, and mechanisms to press individual typefaces on to paper or vellum.
Even though presses had been used for a long time, Gutenberg made one print and combined it with other elements, such as types and oil-based ink.
(Image: Jan Schneckenhaus/Shutterstock)

Prints had been made using woodblocks for a long time, but individually cast types that broke down the text into its constituent elements, the alphabet, were much newer. Gutenberg manufactured a special mold to produce individual types, in a method similar to the one used in minting coins. This allowed the production of interchangeable, reusable types in huge quantities.
The last element perfected by Gutenberg was a special oil-based ink that worked well with these methods and was able to print on paper or vellum.

Although Gutenberg has been attributed to the nearly single-handed invention of the printing press, he did initiate some people into his secret, in order to rope them in as financial partners. A notable partner was Johann Fust, a prosperous merchant from Mainz. 

However, as Gutenberg later found out, Fust’s partnership wasn’t all beneficial, and Gutenberg did not really receive all the acclaim that he wished for during his lifetime. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

After the Gutenberg Press

Gutenberg’s printing press had far-reaching effects. While some, such as the proliferation of the written word, took some time to reach the masses, there were other consequences that were felt relatively faster. 

The printing press allowed the production of more uniform, approved versions of the Bible for the religious authority, thereby fastening its hold over Christendom. For instance, he produced indulgences, the funds from which went to the Crusade Against the Turks, which became a major issue after the fall of Constantinople. He also produced other products for which the biggest market was that of Monasteries and Churches, but right when he was reaching commercial success, in 1455, his partner, Fust, withdrew his investment after losing his payment, causing Gutenberg to lose his equipment and his business in the ensuing trials. It, however, seems that Gutenberg was able to get his business up and running again before he passed away in 1468, largely unrecognized by his contemporaries. 

The printing press standardized and ‘fixed’ texts, purging documents of scribal errors and creating copies that were closer to the original, and birthing the possibility of creating a ‘searchable’ index of texts. 

Printing democratized access to reading, creating a new, international community of intellectuals, who no longer had to necessarily be clerks or of a religious order. To cater to the masses, printers also shifted to vernacular languages from Latin, standardizing these languages in the process.

It also bolstered the foundations for the later renaissance, the reformation, the scientific revolution, and the growth of national communities. 

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions of printing at the time was that to the protestant movement, by disseminating Martin Luther’s 95 theses and other writings to the masses, practically making him the first best selling author. 

While it is practically impossible to list all the ways in which Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized our world, it suffices to say that it has been described as a ‘print revolution’, and for the right reasons; despite not being appreciated in his time, Gutenberg stands as a key figure in Modern History today.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s Print Revolution.

Commonly Asked Questions about Johann Gutenberg And His Printing Press

Q: Who was Johann Gutenberg?

Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, commonly known as Johann Gutenberg, was a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany, who was born in 1395 and is credited with the invention of the printing press.

Q: Why is Johann Gutenberg important in modern history?

Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, and by doing so, created a ‘print revolution’ with far-reaching impacts.

Q: How did the printing press change the world?

The printing press brought about a communications revolution, bringing the written word to the masses and standardizing vernacular languages over Latin. Further, it plays pivotal roles in the later Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the protestant movement.

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