If you can read this, thank Johannes Gutenberg

Created date

November 29th, 2019
A replica of a Gutenberg printing press.

A replica of a Gutenberg printing press. 

Picture a monk sitting at a desk with ink-stained fingers, toiling for a week over a single page of handwritten text from the Bible.

How did we ever used to make books? How did we create pamphlets, flyers, newspapers, or any form of printed matter? 

Now, we punch keys, follow a blinking cursor, and hit the print button. For many years, it was not so simple, but it did get easier thanks to Johannes Gutenberg—inventor of movable type and, thus, the printing press.

Born around 1395 in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg was in fact an aristocrat, a member of the prestigious Gensfleisch family on his father’s side. Indeed, his father, Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, was a wealthy merchant believed to have worked in a strange combination of both the cloth trade and goldsmithing for the ecclesiastical mint.

It was the latter that likely fueled his son’s brilliant future as one of the most important inventors in modern history. According to one scholar, however, Gutenberg’s early life is largely a mystery. 

In fact, there are entire periods of his life that essentially remain blank to this day. Historians can’t even agree on the inventor’s precise date of birth, with the city of Mainz declaring the year as 1400, and others around the late 1300s. 

Aside from a few questionable mentions of political squabbles, little of Gutenberg begins to appear until the 1430s.

But one thing people can agree on is his contribution to modern technology. Given his aristocratic background, Gutenberg had education and training at his fingertips—and he chose to focus on metal engraving.

How printing worked

In order to understand the significance of this contribution, one must first know about printing as it then existed. It’s true, the Chinese were already doing it, but they were mainly using wooden blocks.

The wooden blocks worked—for a time, but eventually, the ink would be absorbed, softened the letters into pulp, and, ultimately, broke down.

The second problem was the Chinese language—made up of ideograms, elegant in appearance, but, from a printing perspective, complex and difficult to recreate on movable metallic blocks, which were the basis of Gutenberg’s innovation.

To be sure, Gutenberg recognized an advantage—an easy, 26-character system of letters that could be used to form words in dozens of languages. Thankfully, his historical presence returns to focus.

His little ‘secret’

In 1439, he ran into money troubles and agreed to reveal what he called a “secret.” 

Now roughly 30 to 34 years old, Gutenberg opened up about a little invention that he’d been working on: movable type— metallic letters that can be moved around, covered with ink, and quickly printed on a page. 

“Movable what?” his debt collector probably asked. 

A novel idea, almost literally in the mass-published sense!

What Gutenberg had managed to do was create something like the internet in the 1400s. Dozens of pages could be printed, assembled, and distributed by way of a deceptively simple concept of metallic block letters and a screw-driven press.

Dropped into a wooden frame, these block letters could be arranged into words, sentences, and artistic layouts in the shape of easy-to-read columns. A heavy press would then descend by way of a screw, pushing ink-coated letters into a piece of paper.

Gutenberg had effectively changed the world. So, what happened next?

A revolution in knowledge and thinking.

Religion (through the Bible) was available to the common man; short but juicy news bulletins could be readily found tacked to walls; taverns became incubators for public discourse; and democratic nations were built.

So important was his invention that Gutenberg—a fifteenth-century German—gave birth to arguably the most important clause in America’s First Amendment: freedom of the press.