Gutenberg, Johannes
(ca. 1398-1468)
   Johann Gansfleisch von Gutenberg is usually and probably correctly identified as the inventor of the art of printing with movable type. Born at Mainz in western Germany to a socially prominent but impoverished family, in 1534 he moved to Strasbourg after a political upheaval in Mainz exiled his family. At Strasbourg he was enrolled in the guild of goldsmiths and no later than 1439 was involved in a lawsuit concerning a secret process of some sort. He seems to have struggled against poverty throughout his life and was repeatedly involved in litigation, usually over business matters but also including a breach-of-promise lawsuit brought by a Strasbourg woman of good family. Sometime between 1444 and 1448, Gutenberg returned to Mainz and resided there until his death.
   The exact history of what he did, when he did it, and where he did it is obscured not only by lack of records but also by large numbers of forged documents produced in later centuries. Yet it seems clear that even though other individuals were experimenting along similar lines, Gutenberg was the first to perfect the technology of letterpress printing, and that his membership in the goldsmiths' guild at Strasbourg was related to his early experiments in the casting of metallic type. The early traditions of the printing industry point to him as the true inventor, and works of contemporary historians also attribute the new art to him. He probably invented the alloy of lead, tin, and antimony that was used successfully to cast individual letters that could be used for printing and then be reused repeatedly. He also devised an ink, derived from the oil-based paints used by northern European painters, that would adhere to the metallic letters. At least as important as the type faces and the ink was the organizational method devised for storing the type, setting it by hand and locking the assembled lines into a metallic chase, breaking down and redistributing the metallic letters after use, adapting the existing winepress to the task of printing, and training a whole class of laborers to engage systematically in an industrial process that had never been done before. The development must have involved repeated instances of trial and error, and the experimental nature of the process no doubt explains why Gutenberg repeatedly had difficulty with business partners and investors who expected marketable products far more rapidly than he could produce them.
   His principal backer after he returned to Mainz was a wealthy goldsmith, Johann Fust, who provided him large sums of money and in 1455 sued him for failure to produce books by some new technique. Despite his technological competence, Gutenberg remained strapped for cash, and it was his former partner, Fust, associated with his son-in-law Peter Schoeffer, who founded the first financially successful printing firm, using typographical material that must have been provided by Gutenberg. They produced books not only for the local market but also for sale abroad; Fust died in 1466 while on a business trip to Paris, no doubt to market products of the new press. This firm of Fust and Schoeffer remained active into the early 16th century.
   The object conventionally identified as "the first printed book" is the so-called Gutenberg Bible, a Latin Vulgate Bible probably printed in 1454-1455 and certainly completed by 1456, when a local illuminator completed decoration of a copy and noted the date on the copy. The first book with a printed date was an elaborate and costly edition of the Psalms produced for liturgical use on order of the archbishop of Mainz, not by Gutenberg but by his former associates, Fust and Schoeffer. It bears the printed date of completion, 14 August 1457. Historians of printing have noted that both of these early volumes were remarkably perfect in form, bearing little evidence of being the product of a new and still experimental technology. The first clearly datable product of the new art was not a book at all but a set of blank forms provided by the clergy to penitents who secured ecclesiastical indulgences in return for contributions for a papal crusade for the reconquest of Constantinople, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. These blanks had the name of the purchaser and the date of purchase filled in by pen, and surviving copies bear handwritten dates from 1454 and 1455. There are even earlier fragments of more technologically primitive printing, including a fragment of an astrological calendar for 1448 (hence presumably printed the preceding year) that is technologically much less advanced. The identity of the printer or printers who produced these early fragments is uncertain.
   See also Printing.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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