Gutenberg, Johann Gensfleisch zum

SUBJECT AREA: Paper and printing
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b. c. 1394–9 Mainz, Germany
d. 3 February 1468 Mainz, Germany
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German inventor of printing with movable type.
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Few biographical details are known of Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg, yet it has been said that he was responsible for Germany's most notable contribution to civilization. He was a goldsmith by trade, of a patrician family of the city of Mainz. He seems to have begun experiments on printing while a political exile in Strasbourg c. 1440. He returned to Mainz between 1444 and 1448 and continued his experiments, until by 1450 he had perfected his invention sufficiently to justify raising capital for its commercial exploitation.
Circumstances were propitious for the invention of printing at that time. Rises in literacy and prosperity had led to the formation of a social class with the time and resources to develop a taste for reading, and the demand for reading matter had outstripped the ability of the scribes to satisfy it. The various technologies required were well established, and finally the flourishing textile industry was producing enough waste material, rag, to make paper, the only satisfactory and cheap medium for printing. There were others working along similar lines, but it was Gutenberg who achieved the successful adaptation and combination of technologies to arrive at a process by which many identical copies of a text could be produced in a wide variety of forms, of which the book was the most important. Gutenberg did make several technical innovations, however. The two-piece adjustable mould for casting types of varying width, from T to "M", was ingenious. Then he had to devise an oil-based ink suitable for inking metal type, derived from the painting materials developed by contemporary Flemish artists. Finally, probably after many experiments, he arrived at a metal alloy of distinctive composition suitable for casting type.
In 1450 Gutenberg borrowed 800 guldens from Johannes Fust, a lawyer of Mainz, and two years later Fust advanced a further 800 guldens, securing for himself a partnership in Gutenberg's business. But in 1455 Fust foreclosed and the bulk of Gutenberg's equipment passed to Peter Schöffer, who was in the service of Fust and later married his daughter. Like most early printers, Gutenberg seems not to have appreciated, or at any rate to have been able to provide for, the great dilemma of the publishing trade, namely the outlay of considerable capital in advance of each publication and the slowness of the return. Gutenberg probably retained only the type for the 42- and 36-line bibles and possibly the Catholicon of 1460, an encyclopedic work compiled in the thirteenth century and whose production pointed the way to printing's role as a means of spreading knowledge. The work concluded with a short descriptive piece, or colophon, which is probably by Gutenberg himself and is the only output of his mind that we have; it manages to omit the names of both author and printer.
Gutenberg seems to have abandoned printing after 1460, perhaps due to failing eyesight as well as for financial reasons, and he suffered further loss in the sack of Mainz in 1462. He received a kind of pension from the Archbishop in 1465, and on his death was buried in the Franciscan church in Mainz. The only major work to have issued for certain from Gutenberg's workshop is the great 42-line bible, begun in 1452 and completed by August 1456. The quality of this Graaf piece of printing is a tribute to Gutenberg's ability as a printer, and the soundness of his invention is borne out by the survival of the process as he left it to the world, unchanged for over three hundred years save in minor details.
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Further Reading
A.Ruppel, 1967, Johannes Gutenberg: sein Leben und sein Werk, 3rd edn, Nieuwkoop: B.de Graaf (the standard biography), A.M.L.de Lamartine, 1960, Gutenberg, inventeur de l'imprimerie, Tallone.
Scholderer, 1963, Gutenberg, Inventor of Printing, London: British Museum.
S.H.Steinberg, 1974, Five Hundred Years of Printing 3rd edn, London: Penguin (provides briefer details).
LRD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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