Gutenberg, Johann

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.

Gutenberg, Johann

Gutenberg, Johann (go͞oˈtənbərg, Ger. yōˈhän go͞oˈtənbĕrk), c.1397–1468, German inventor and printer, long credited with the invention of a method of printing from movable type, including the use of metal molds and alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks: a method that, with refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means of printing until the late 20th cent. His type, which was hand set with characters of equal height, was printed on handmade paper. Similar printing had been done earlier in China and Korea. In China printing from movable woodblocks was invented by Pi Sheng in 1040, and printing with movable type made of clay was also prevalent; in Korea movable copper type was invented as early as 1392. Europeans who have been thought by some to have preceded Gutenberg in the practice of his art include Laurens Janszoon Koster, of Holland, and Pamfilo Castaldi, of Italy. Early in the 21st cent. scholars, using computer technology, proposed that Gutenberg's movable type may actually have been sand cast, rather than produced in metal molds. If true, this would indicate that the development of Western printing technology was somewhat more gradual than previously thought.

Evidence indicates that Gutenberg was born in Mainz, trained as a goldsmith, and entered a partnership in which he taught his friends his secret profession of printing in the 1430s. He lived in Strasbourg for some years, and he may have made his great invention there in 1436 or 1437; he returned to Mainz (c.1446) and formed a partnership with a goldsmith, Johann Fust. Gutenberg's goal was to mechanically reproduce medieval liturgical manuscripts without losing their color or beauty of design. The masterpiece of his press has been known under several names: the Gutenberg Bible; the Mazarin Bible; and in modern times, as the 42-line Bible, for the number of lines in each printed column. Fust's demand (1455) for repayment of sums advanced resulted in a settlement in which Gutenberg abandoned his claims to his invention and surrendered his stock, including type and the incomplete work on the 42-line Bible, to Fust, who continued the business and completed printing the Bible with the help of Peter Schöffer, who later became his son-in-law. Although the work bears no place of printing, date, or printer's name, it is usually dated to 1455. Printed in an edition of about 180 copies, it is the earliest extant Western book printed in movable type.

It is thought that Gutenberg reestablished himself in the printing business with the aid of Conrad Humery; works attributed, not unanimously, to him include a Missale speciale constantiense and a Catholicon (1460). The Elector of Mainz, Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, presented him with a benefice (1465) yielding an income and various privileges. There is a Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.


See O. W. Fuhrmann, The Five Hundredth Anniversary of the Invention of Printing (1937); J. M. Fontana, Mankind's Greatest Invention (rev. ed. 1964); D. C. McMurtrie and D. Farran, Wings for Words (1940, repr. 1971); J. Ing, Johann Gutenberg and His Bible (1988); J. Man, Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Gutenberg, Johann


Born between 1394 and 1399 (or in 1406); died Feb. 3, 1468. German inventor who created the European method of book printing and the first printing press in Europe.

The Gutenberg method (typesetting) made it possible to obtain an unlimited number of identical printings of a text from a mold consisting of movable and replaceable elements—types (letters). The type was the first standardized part in the history of European technology. Gutenberg designed a hand mold for the casting of type, which provided for the standardization of the type and its mass fabrication. The device was a hollow metal rod with a removable lower plate made of soft metal, on which the design of the letter was stamped using a hard die, or punch. A special alloy was poured into the hollow rod. The face part of the cast type received the mirror image of the letter. Gutenberg was the first to use the press to obtain an impression, and he developed the formulas for the printing alloy (type metal made of lead and antimony) and the printing dye. Thus Gutenberg receives credit for development of the printing process as a whole.

Gutenberg’s biography is known only in general outline. He came from the Gensfleisch family of Mainz patricians. Between 1434 and 1444, Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg, where in 1438 he organized a partnership that was supposed to carry out and take commercial advantage of a certain enterprise related to “secret arts.” The records of a legal trial between Gutenberg and his partners (1439) mention a press, lead, casting molds, and “stamping” or “printing” (trucken). It is obvious that in Strasbourg, Gutenberg was carrying on intensive experimentation. Most of the sources from the 15th century attest to the beginning of book printing in 1440, but the version that attributes it to Strasbourg is not directly confirmed by preserved printed materials. In the 1450’s, Gutenberg lived in Mainz. There he completed work on his invention.

From the so-called Helmasperger Notarial Document (Nov. 6, 1455), we know of the lawsuit against Gutenberg by the Mainz burgher J. Fust concerning “book work” (Werk der Bucher). The object of the suit was the printing shop managed jointly by Gutenberg and Fust and/or the finished product of this printing shop—the printing of the so-called 42-line Bible, the first full-scale printed publication in Europe (a two-volume folio of 1,282 pages). Most probably, by the decision of the court Fust obtained possession of the printing shop and the edition of the Bible from Gutenberg. This edition, which is recognized as a masterpiece of early printing, imitated the medieval Gothic manuscript books in its formal elements (design of the type, format, and so on) and surpassed them by the advantages of the press. The colored initial letters and ornamentation were done by artists. The so-called 36-line Bible, which was probably published in Bamberg at the end of the 1450’s, is a reprinting from it.

Gutenberg is credited with the publication of the Latin explanatory dictionary Catholicon of Joannes Balbus (13th century) in Mainz in 1460. In addition to the full-scale publications there is a group of lesser publications, which are inferior to the above in a printing sense, including the “Fragment From the Last Judgment” (1445?) from the German 14th-century narrative poem The Book of the Sibyls; editions of the so-called Donatus, the textbook of Latin grammar by Aelius Donatus (fourth century); calendars, including the Türken kalender (1454) and the Ablass kalender (1456); the short work Provinciale Romanum (1456), a list of dioceses of the Catholic Church; and several indulgences. Some (K. Wehmer, for example) feel that these publications were not made by Gutenberg but by some “unknown printer.” According to another hypothesis (N. P. Kiselev and A. Kapr) there were two printing shops in Mainz in the 1450’s—one that was established in 1448 (?) and belonged to Gutenberg personally, where the small-scale publications were printed, and another that came later and was established by a loan from J. Fust, which is where the 42-line Bible was printed.

Because of the anonymity of the publications traditionally linked with Gutenberg’s name and also because of Dutch claims of priority, the so-called Gutenberg question arose. At the present time (1971) Gutenberg’s priority is considered proved, and the Gutenberg question comes down basically to problems of attribution, localization, and dating of the publications ascribed to him.


Kiselev, N. P. “Izobretenie knigopechataniia i pervye tipografii v Evrope.” Istoricheskii zhurnal, 1940, no. 9, pp. 77–89.
Varbanets, N. V. “Sovremennoe sostoianie gutenbergovskogo vo-prosa.” In the collection 500 let posle Gutenberga. Moscow, 1968.
Liublinskii, V. S. Podvig Gutenberga: In the collection Kniga: Issledovaniia i materialy, Sb. 16. Moscow, 1968.
Ruppel, A.Johannes Gutenberg: sein Leben und sein Werk, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1967.
Kapr, A. Johannes Gutenberg und die Cyprischen Ablassbriefe von 1457/1455. Leipzig, 1968.
Lülfing, H. Johannes Gutenberg und das Buchwesens des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig [1969].
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.