Johannes Gutenberg

“Man of the Millennium”

In 1998 Johannes Gutenberg was voted “Man of the Millennium” by Time Life magazine. An elite circle of international journalists and the people from all over the world who took part in the vote agreed that no other inventor had had such a long-term effect on the development of the human race than Johannes Gutenberg.

Johannes Gutenberg, born in Mainz in Germany in c. 1400, is heralded as the inventor of printing with moveable type. He was a craftsman, businessman and pioneer of one of the biggest revolutions ever – the media revolution. At the end of the Middle Ages he created a complex technical system which was to change the world. His invention of book printing with serially produced, normed and reusable letters in conjunction with the use of a printing press facilitated the event of the information society as we know it today.

From Gutenberg to the World Wide Web

For over 350 years Gutenberg´s system was workable with practically no change to it. In the 19th century it formed the basis for developments which led to the advent of the high-speed and rotary printing presses, enabling unprecedented speed and improvement in the text and book printing process. The technologies of the 20th century were also based on Gutenberg’s fundamental ideas and extend far into the spheres of the World Wide Web – a success story without compare.

Gutenberg’s life and work

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz almost exactly 600 years ago. His original name was Henne Gensfleisch zur Laden, people then being named after the property a family owned. Much of his life remains a mystery as no written documents have survived. Gutenberg’s father, Friele Gensfleisch, was a Mainz patrician and his mother, Else Wirich, came from a merchant family. His date of birth is estimated to be between 1394 and 1404, with the turn of the century, 1400, traditionally celebrated as the year of his arrival into the world. It is not clear how Gutenberg spent his childhood and youth or what kind of schooling he had.

We know that Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg in 1434. At the time Strasbourg was a city of trade which was three times the size of Mainz and promised good earnings for anyone with a mind for business. Thanks to the inheritance provided when his mother died in 1433 Gutenberg had a considerable amount of money at his disposal at this stage in this life. He used this capital to settle in the Strasbourg suburb of St Arbogast and developed a project designed to earn him a good income; through a ‘manufacturing cooperative’ he aimed to mass-produce holy mirrors for pilgrims to take with them on their journey to Aachen. These religious souvenirs were made from a tin alloy which was melted and poured into casts. This shows that Gutenberg is not only to be seen as an inventor but also an entrepreneur.

In the autumn of 1438, or possibly earlier, Gutenberg started work on another project which he insisted his partners keep a secret. We only have fragments of information on this new enterprise which are confusing and ambiguous.

The documents we do have refer to a press, formes, tools and lead, among other things. It is feasible that Gutenberg ‘invented’ printing in Strasbourg using a printing press and moveable type – or at least came very close to doing so. The questions remain as to how far his invention progressed at this stage. No books or prints have survived from this period.

Sources last mention Gutenberg as being in Strasbourg in 1444 place him back in his native Mainz in 1448. There is proof that he spent the intervening period in Frankfurt am Main.

While Gutenberg was still printing his Bible, he quarrelled with his creditor, Johannes Fust, who had twice lent him 800 guilders for this ambitious project.

For reasons unknown to us, Gutenberg lost his case. He had to hand over his Bible workshop to Fust and possibly also the Bibles he had already printed. Fust continued to run the workshop with one of Gutenberg’s employees, Peter Schöffer. Their officina, as print workshops used to be called, went on to produce the Mainz Psalter which can be seen in its second edition from 1459 in the incunabula section of Gutenberg Museum.

A document named after notary Ulrich Helmasperger, what’s known as the Helmasperger Notarial Instrument from November 6, 1455, informs us as to the legal proceedings brought by Fust against Gutenberg demanding repayment of loans and interest. Although this is only one single document from the entire law suit, it is the most important record we have of Gutenberg’s business relations with Fust and the printing of the 42-line Bible. In the court case, the conclusion of which is not clearly documented, Gutenberg probably loses all prints of his Bible and a good proportion of his printing workshop.

Gutenberg died in February 1468 in his native Mainz but not before he, like many of his fellow citizens, had been temporarily driven from the city in 1462. Before he died he was made a courtier by Prince-Bishop Adolf von Nassau. This allowed him to spend the last years of his life in comfort. Prior to his death he was able to print a number of minor works, presumably in Eltville and Mainz, and possibly worked with other printing workshops, either as a printer or a consultant.