Bunch-Hellemans, Movable type and Gutenberg

Most people have the general idea that Gutenberg invented printing. A few who think they know better believe that although the Chinese developed printing, Gutenberg invented movable type. Neither is actually true –– Chinese inventors created printing, the paper to print on, and movable type made from wood or ceramics. These concepts spread to the West relatively soon after their invention, especially the manufacture of paper.

Gutenberg’s actual inventions were two. Although he was not the first to try casting metal type –– the Chinese had tried it and found it too difficult to do properly –– he created the first system for casting type so that the letters could form a flat surface, essential to their use in printing. And he invented a printers’ ink that would function with metal type. The arrangement he developed to use a modified wine press to impress type held in wooden forms on paper was good enough not to change in any substantial way for about 300 years. From the very first, Gutenberg produced what we still recognize as printing of the highest order.

Little is known about Gutenberg the person. Johann Gutenberg was a goldsmith from Mainz, Hesse (Germany), born just at the end of the 14th century. He was on the losing side of a political conflict in Mainz when he was in his early thirties and, as a result, moved to Strasbourg, then a free city. There is a tiny bit of evidence that by 1435 he had turned from goldsmithing to work at least part time on the development of printing.

As a goldsmith, Gutenberg was already accustomed to making stamps used to mark his products. The stamps commonly used by goldsmiths and silversmiths, small punches that leave the mark impressed into the soft gold or silver, are each very close to a single piece of type. When Gutenberg printed a popular encyclopedia in 1460, the Catholicon, he described the achievement as “printed and accomplished without the help of reed, stylus, or pen but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.”