In one of my earlier posts I briefly mentioned how Gutenberg invented the printing press by combining several existing innovations. The post didn’t provide any details of how he actually did it, which might give the false impression that Gutenberg simply took four existing inventions (wine press, movable type, ink and paper), combined them and miraculously created the most important innovation in the cultural history of humanity. While it’s true that he did use existing innovations, the pivotal and truly genius invention that made the creation of the printing press possible was invented by Gutenberg himself.
When Gutenberg started working on his printing press, he had the following requirements:
1. Long lasting movable type, so it could be reused many times.
2. Consistent size.
3. The ability to position the characters side by side in order to produce a straight line of print.
To meet these requirements, Gutenberg had to create a special adjustable mold. Gutenberg’s adjustable mold was the key element that made the creation of the printing press possible. Since letters have different widths, the walls of the mold had to be adjustable. For example, the letter M is wider than the letter I, so the mold had to accommodate this difference in size.
Let’s stop and think about this for a second. There were no such things as standardization or mass production in 1435. To understand how revolutionary Gutenberg and his adjustable mold were, we need only recall Charles Babbage who’s Analytical Engine could not be built because there was no standardization or mold production in the19th century (300 years after Gutenberg). Babbage had to make every piece of his Analytical Engine individually. If Gutenberg had had to create every character by hand, he would have failed in creating his printing press. The adjustable mold was a real breakthrough and a truly genius invention!
When Gutenberg was 16 years old, he worked at his father’s mint where golden coins were made and engraved. One of the skills that he learned during that time, metallurgy, later became crucial to his success in inventing the printing press.
The process that Gutenberg established during development of his printing press included several steps.
1. On a steel bar called a punch he chiseled a character that stood up in relief.
2. The punch then was used to produce an impression of the letter into a brass matrix.
3. The matrix was placed into the bottom of Gutenberg’s adjustable mold.
4. Molten lead pored into the mold.
5. After lead cooled, mold was open and the letter was removed.
The letters stood above the metal base at exactly the same height.
6. Then the letters needed to from sentences and paragraphs were put into a special page size chase.
7. Next the chase was put into an iron, flat boxlike frame. The sides of this frame were pushed together to firmly secure the chase.
8. Ink was applied on all characters in the frame. Gutenberg developed a special formula for his ink, so it would spread evenly and dried quickly.
9. Finally, he pressed the frame with all characters against paper to produce a print.
Despite his ingenious invention, Gutenberg did not know success in his lifetime. Gutenberg’s partner, who was also a lawyer, sued Gutenberg in 1455 and took over the workshop. The partner invested in the company and expected return on his investment in five years. When five years came along and Gutenberg did not have the money, the partner sued Gutenberg and took ownership of the workshop and all contents, including the printing press and several printed bibles. The partner took credit for inventing the printing press and became quite wealthy by printing and selling books. It was not until after Gutenberg’s death that historians discovered he was the actual inventor of the printing press.
Burke, James. The Day The Universe Changed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Burke, James. Connections. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Rees, Fran. Johannes Gutenberg : inventor of the printing press. Minneapolis, Minn: Compass Point Books, 2006.