Johann (Gensfleisch) Gutenberg

Johann Gensfleisch was born in Mainz, Germany about 1397 and as was the custom of patrician families in that era, was known by his mother's family name, Gutenberg. Through early experiments in metallurgy and manufacturing items to sell to pilgrims, Gutenberg saw that the key to profits was inexpensive mass production. Gutenberg's astute sense of what was marketable led him to take his first steps into printing.

Printing was not unknown, as woodblock printing had been practiced in the Orient for some centuries. In Europe, woodblocks were used for the printing of textiles and playing cards. Gutenberg took pains not to reinvent the wheel. Over an approximately twenty-year period, he adapted existing technologies such as the winepress, textile presses, and hand presses used by papermakers and bookbinders to construct his printing press. But essential to this press was the invention of an adjustable hand-mold which would allow the casting of thousands of letters efficiently and with precision. In addition, a special ink needed to be devised. Gutenberg's ink formula, oil paint with a high copper and lead content, is still black and glossy after 500 years. He devised such a remarkably effective technique, that the principles of his invention remain unchanged to this day. Gutenberg's contributions rendered obsolete the handwritten books of his age.

The time of Gutenberg

The 15th century marks the transition from the Middle Ages to Modern Times. In virtually all areas of human interaction there were far-reaching changes. Dangerous and long sea voyages of Portuguese and Spanish explorers opened up new worlds, while in Europe, the old world, the political balance of power was completely remodeled.

Technical innovations, a marked increase in written communication even outside monastery walls, attempts to reform the church, a first spread of humanistic thought, as well as new art forms were some of the positive developments of this time. On the negative side however horrible inquisition proceedings and many long-lasting wars were also part of the many contradictions of Johannes Gutenberg’s century.

Only when looking at it within the context of these changing times can Gutenberg’s invention be understood…

The invention

Before Gutenberg woodblock printing was common. A sheet of paper was laid over the inked woodblock and an impression taken by rubbing - a complex and lengthy procedure.

The basic idea of Gutenberg’s invention was the splitting up of the text into individual components such as lower and upper case letters, punctuation marks, ligatures and abbreviations, based upon the tradition of medieval scribes. These individual components were cast in any quantity as type in reverse, and then put together to form words, lines and pages. The prototype for each letter was the punch. A character was cut into the face of a steel block, resulting in a precise relief in reverse. Now the respective punch was struck into a rectangular block made of softer metal, probably copper, with a hammer-blow.

This matrix had to be worked over again and adjusted turning it into a right-angled cube with even sides. The right-reading picture had to have a uniform depth; therefore the surface was processed with a file. To facilitate the casting of a character, Gutenberg developed the hand casting instrument. Two sections enclose a rectangular casting void closed at one end by the matrix.

After casting the characters in the hand casting instrument, the most important part of the invention, enabled quick casting of the required quantities of the different characters needed. The casting metal was an alloy of lead, tin and further admixtures that secured fast cooling and a sufficient durability under the high pressure of the press.

The printing press which led to a considerable acceleration of the method so far used of taking an impression by rubbing was a screw press with special equipment for the effective and even transfer of the type from the form to the paper or parchment.

Other inventions by Gutenberg

The other inventions brought together by Gutenberg in his pursuit of a printing press were:

  • The adaptation for printing, of the wine or olive oil, screw-type press that had been in use for hundreds of years, throughout Europe and Asia.
  • The adaptation of block-print technology - known in Europe since the return of Marco Polo from Asia at the end of the 13th century.
  • The development of oil-based inks. These had been around since the 10th century, but smeared on the vellum used to make books. The religious manuscripts used an egg-based tempura. This was unsuitable for printing with type.

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