Johann Gutenberg

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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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.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.
References in periodicals archive ?
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1450 - Johann Gutenberg invents movable type, allowing mass production of documents.
Only when Johann Gutenberg (entry number 8) devised the printing press did the West redress the balance and draw ahead of China.
In his deadly rampage at the Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt, Germany, most of his victims were shot in the head.
The revelations came as pupils of the Johann Gutenberg secondary school in Erfurt struggled to come to terms with the loss.
Police initially said two teachers and a police officer who rushed to the scene were killed in the bloodbath at the Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium school, located in a residential area of the city.