The Invention of Printing

 A web page about Johannes Gutenberg

 Sample page from a Chinese block book
Printing words on paper probably originated in China a little over a thousand years ago. At best, the early Chinese printing method was awkward. Because Chinese writing relied on thousands of individual symbols or "ideograms" signifying specific things and ideas (instead of the Greco-Roman system using a small number of letters to represent sounds), printing in China developed as a time-consuming and probably a costly process. First, a scribe would write out the ideograms--some quite elaborate--on a nearly transparent piece of paper. Next, a woodcarver would turn the paper over and fix it face-down on a block of wood. The carver could then see the ideograms in reverse (printing would, of course, "un-reverse" the ideograms). Next, the woodcarver would cut into the wood and carve around the ideograms, making each one stand out in relief. Finally, a printer would daub the block with ink, place a clean piece of paper over the block, and then press down on the paper to make a finished print.

The major problem with this approach was that an enormous amount of time and labor went into carving a single "page" of a book. But there were other problems. If the carver made a mistake, or if the writer wanted to change what was written, the entire process had to be started all over again.

By the early 1400s this method of printing had made its way to Europe and examples of these "block books," as historians call them, survive from this period. But the block-book printing process never really caught on. Not only was the method time-consuming, but there also wasn't a great demand for printed books. Very few Europeans at the time could read. Those who could read were served by scribes who made hand-copy books letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence.


Scribes were typically either monks who copied books for use in monasteries or they were commercial copyists who were hired by readers to produce books. There were numerous problems with the scribal method of making books. It was certainly slow and costly. But the central problem with scribes was that they made mistakes in their copies, and then these copies came into the hands of other scribes, who not only copied the previous mistakes but added more mistakes of their own.

An engraving of the early 1500s showing a scribe's shop, known as a scriptorium. In the foreground, two scribes copy books. In the background, another scribe shows hand-copied books to a customer. 


In the early 1400s a number of inventive people in Europe were tinkering with the idea of printing machines and experimenting with a better way to make books. One of these was a German named Johannes Gutenberg. Very little is known of Gutenberg. He was born around 1400 in the town of Mainz and as a youngster he was probably trained as a goldsmith. He also seems to have acquired some knowledge of gem cutting. He was literate and he most likely spoke French and Latin as well as his native German.

With this background, Gutenberg commanded an interesting and auspicious set of skills in language, metallurgy, and the precision cutting of precious metals and gemstones, and he applied this knowledge to the problem of figuring out a better way to print.

Now we usually think of Gutenberg as the inventor of the printing press and we think of his Bible as the first book printed. But this view of Gutenberg isn't quite accurate. Well before Gutenberg began his work on printing, other people had tinkered with the idea of a printing machine that relied on a big bolt or screw--a press--that applied pressure to a piece of paper. Gutenberg's real achievement centered on the process of printing, not the machine, and his achievement sounds pretty technical: he devised a means of printing using movable type cast from matrices.

Perhaps because he was literate and a polyglot--someone who speaks a number of languages--Gutenberg was keenly aware of an obvious fact about the Western European writing system: it employs a small cluster of letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and few other symbols. And because he was trained in the crafts of metallurgy and gem cutting, Gutenberg also realized that small pieces of metal could be cut to represent the letters and other characters. This led him to the idea of individual "movable" letters, rather than a "block" of words. These letters could be used (and re-used and reused) to form words, sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately books. They could then be locked into a frame and the frame could be positioned on a press.

The earliest known printed picture of a printing press appeared in 1499 in a French book containing a poem titled "The Dance of Death." The skeletons represent Death. The man seated on the left is setting type. The two men in the middle are working the press. The master printer who owned and ran the printing shop is on the right.

With the concept of movable letters in mind, Gutenberg set off to develop a process for making the individual pieces of type. He fashioned "punches" made of steel. On one end was a letter, a number, or a punctuation mark cut in relief; on the other was a blunt "head" for striking. By holding the letter side down on a piece of soft metal and then hitting the head with a hammer, Gutenberg created a "matrix." The matrix was then placed in a mold and hot metal was poured into the mold. When the metal cooled, the mold and matrix were pried away and--voila!-- there was a letter of type. A very large number of letters had to be made this way to set a page or two of type. Some letters--think of vowels--had to be made in even larger numbers because they recur over and over again. But once these letters were made, they were could be used repeatedly.

No later than 1456 the first fruit of Gutenberg's labor was published--the Biblia Sacra Mazarinæa (otherwise known as Gutenberg's Bible). Gutenberg went on to print a few other works, but printing seems to have earned him little money. It also brought him into costly legal disputes with the German merchants who had helped him finance his invention. In 1465 he received a pension from the archbishop of Mainz and seems to have lived the remainder of his life in comfortable circumstances. He probably died in 1468

Gutenberg's invention of movable type had a profound impact on the European history. Historians have argued that, among other consequences, the printing press contributed to the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the Humanist culture of the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution--all of which occurred within 250 years of Gutenberg's death.

Want a rough idea of the impact of Gutenberg's invention on our lives? Think of some of our commonly used words and phrases that owe their origin to printing: typecast, stereotype, stop the presses, headline, index, lower case, upper case, get the lead out, proofread, etc.

An engraving from the 1580s showing a printing shop with two presses in operation. In the background, a man carries reams of paper into the shop. On the right, two men work presses. On the left, a printer sets type and another proofreads a printed sheet. In the foreground, an apprentice assembles printed sheets into a book.

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