“A spring of truth shall flow from it…” –Gutenberg, 15th Century”
Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. His first name is also listed in some sources as “Johannes”. Gutenberg’s father, Friele Genfleisch zur Ladem zum Gutenberg, was an upper class cloth merchant while his mother, Else Wirich, was a shopkeeper. Johann had an older brother named Friele and a sister named Else. Johann Gutenberg’s exact birth year is unknown. However, it was between the years of 1394 and 1404. Many sources list his birth year as 1400 for simplicity. Many years after his death, Mainz chose to celebrate Gutenberg’s birth on June 24, as this is Feast of St. John the Baptist Day.
As a young boy, Gutenberg’s nickname was “Little Hans.” We know little else of his childhood. However, certain judgments can be made based on customs of the day. He would have learned Latin in school as a young child. He grew up close to a mint where coins were punched and had relatives in the coin-minting business. Gutenberg may have attended nearby Erfurt University. The name “Johannes de Altavilla” is on the rolls for this school from 1418-1420 and this may be yet another variation of Gutenberg’s name. At the conclusion of his schooling, Gutenberg’s first career was as a goldsmith.
Much of what we know about the rest of Gutenberg’s life is based on financial statements and court records. His father died in 1419, leaving the estate to Friele, the older brother. Gutenberg worked as a goldsmith in Mainz until 1434 when he moved to Strasbourg due to political unrest in Mainz. There he dated a woman named Ennelin zur Yserin Thüre. Translated, her name means “Little Annie Iron Door.” Court records indicate a lawsuit was brought against him for failing to follow through with a promised marriage. The resolution of the court case is unknown. There is no evidence Gutenberg was ever married to anyone.
In Strasbourg, Gutenberg used his metalworking skills to create mirrored trinkets for the 1439 Aachen Christian pilgrimage. These items were quite popular at the time. Purchasers believed holding the reflection of a holy relic in one of these mirrored trinkets would allow the bearer to absorb the magical properties of the relic. While creating these items, Gutenberg secretly experimented with the creation of a printing press. Gutenberg returned to Mainz in 1448 when his family home became available due to his sister’s death. Gutenberg’s printing press was ready by 1450. In order to fund his project, he borrowed 800 guilders from a lawyer in Mainz named Johannes Fust.
In order to mass-produce books, Gutenberg transformed a wine press into a printing press. He also experimented with inks until he discovered a preparation that would stick to both metal and paper. Gutenberg adapted the coin-punching techniques he had witnessed as a boy into the basis of moveable type printing. In order to create a piece of type, he invented the hand-held mold where molten a mixture of molten lead, tin, and antimony is heated to 621°F. This piece of equipment would be used by type-founders for over 500 years.
The other key part of Gutenberg’s invention was the “form” which gathered the lines of type into a single metal frame. In addition to these 2 major printing innovations, Gutenberg refined methods in, “storing type, composing it, setting it into multiple pages, getting it on to a suitable press, making the right paper, manufacturing the best sort of ink, and then ensuring quality control…”.
The Bible was arguably Gutenberg’s greatest achievement in printing. He produced 180 copies of the Bible around the year 1455. The work was produced in 2 volumes totaling 1,275 pages and over 3 million characters. He justified the right margin, thus adding yet another invention to his impressive list of accomplishments. “The Gutenberg Bible remains a unique fusion of technology and Renaissance art”. Ironically, Gutenberg saw no profit from it. Johann Fust, the lawyer who made a financial investment into Gutenberg’s Bible, sued Gutenberg on accusations of embezzlement in 1455. Fust won, and acquired the majority of Gutenberg’s printing equipment, becoming the predominant printer in Mainz.
After the year 1460, Gutenberg appears to have completely abandoned the printing business. The end of his printing career may have been due to a combination of the loss of most of his equipment and blindness. Gutenberg did not receive accolades for his inventions until he was in his 60’s. In 1465, Archbishop Adolf von Nassau awarded Gutenberg an annual pension of 2,000 kilograms of grain and 2,000 liters of wine along with a tax exemption. These awards came with the agreement that Adolf could use Gutenberg’s printing press at any time. The printing press was now seen as more than a literary tool—it was now also a political tool.
Fust, Gutenberg’s financial nemesis, died in 1466 of the plague. Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468 from unknown causes. While Gutenberg’s accomplishments were not duly lauded in his time, many now consider his printing press to be one of the most significant accomplishments in history.
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Image of Gutenberg from the Gutenberg Museum.