Gutenberg, Johann

Gutenberg, Johann go͞oˈtənbərg, Ger. yōˈhän go͞oˈtənbĕrk [key], c.1397–1468, German inventor and printer, long credited with the invention of a method of printing from movable type, including the use of metal molds and alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks: a method that, with refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means of printing until the late 20th cent. His type, which was hand set with characters of equal height, was printed on handmade paper. Similar printing had been done earlier in China and Korea. In China printing from movable woodblocks was invented by Pi Sheng in 1040, and printing with movable type made of clay was also prevalent; in Korea movable copper type was invented as early as 1392. Europeans who have been thought by some to have preceded Gutenberg in the practice of his art include Laurens Janszoon Koster, of Holland, and Pamfilo Castaldi, of Italy. Early in the 21st cent. scholars, using computer technology, proposed that Gutenberg's movable type may actually have been sand cast, rather than produced in metal molds. If true, this would indicate that the development of Western printing technology was somewhat more gradual than previously thought.

Evidence indicates that Gutenberg was born in Mainz, trained as a goldsmith, and entered a partnership in which he taught his friends his secret profession of printing in the 1430s. He lived in Strasbourg for some years, and he may have made his great invention there in 1436 or 1437; he returned to Mainz (c.1446) and formed a partnership with a goldsmith, Johann Fust. Gutenberg's goal was to mechanically reproduce medieval liturgical manuscripts without losing their color or beauty of design. The masterpiece of his press has been known under several names: the Gutenberg Bible; the Mazarin Bible; and in modern times, as the 42-line Bible, for the number of lines in each printed column. Fust's demand (1455) for repayment of sums advanced resulted in a settlement in which Gutenberg abandoned his claims to his invention and surrendered his stock, including type and the incomplete work on the 42-line Bible, to Fust, who continued the business and completed printing the Bible with the help of Peter Schöffer, who later became his son-in-law. Although the work bears no place of printing, date, or printer's name, it is usually dated to 1455. Printed in an edition of about 180 copies, it is the earliest extant Western book printed in movable type.

It is thought that Gutenberg reestablished himself in the printing business with the aid of Conrad Humery; works attributed, not unanimously, to him include a Missale speciale constantiense and a Catholicon (1460). The Elector of Mainz, Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, presented him with a benefice (1465) yielding an income and various privileges. There is a Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.

See O. W. Fuhrmann, The Five Hundredth Anniversary of the Invention of Printing (1937); J. M. Fontana, Mankind's Greatest Invention (rev. ed. 1964); D. C. McMurtrie and D. Farran, Wings for Words (1940, repr. 1971); J. Ing, Johann Gutenberg and His Bible (1988); J. Man, Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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