To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. (Cicero)

Category: Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg’s Printing Press

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.

Making Connections Between Seemingly Unrelated Domains

I have always been interested in the way great scientists and inventors are able to make connections (or cross-appropriations) between seemingly unrelated domains. Being able to see relationships like these enables one to come up with truly ingenious solutions. Some of the connections might seem obvious to us now, but they only seem so in retrospect. Somebody had to be the first one to notice and implement them. What follows is a few examples of these kinds of connections.

Analytical Engine — Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage is considered by most science historians to be the grandfather of modern computing. He was a prolific inventor but he is most known for his work on the Analytical Engine. The analytical Engine was a revolutionary idea in the beginning of the 19th century and far ahead of its time. It was supposed to be able to add, deduct, multiply and divide. The mathematical tables at the time were computed by humans and were full of errors. Babbage envisioned that his Analytical Engine would completely eliminate the human (and human error) from the process of counting. To achieve this, there had to be a way to instruct the machine to perform specific operations, what we today call programming. Instead of creating something from scratch, Babbage borrowed the concept of the punch card from Jacquard’s loom. In both instances, the punch card would convey a series of instructions. In the textile factory, the instructions were sent to a loom and in the Analytical Engine, sent to an engine to perform mathematical calculations. He made the mental leap from the textile industry and a specific loom to an engine that counts, a totally novel concept that was not fully realized in the inventor’s lifetime.

Jacquard's Loom

Jacquard's Loom

Plaster Cast — Nikolai Pirogov

The great Russian surgeon, Nikolai Pirogov, is considered a founding father of field surgery. In the mid 19th century, if a soldier broke a leg during combat, it was sure to be amputated. There were no other options at the time as the method of casting a broken limb didn’t not yet exist. While at his sculptor friend’s studio, Pirogov noticed how his friend prepared a substance to be used for the creation of a new sculpture — plaster. Later that day Pirogov made the connection between a sculptor’s plaster cast and a soldier’s broken leg. He used plaster to create casts for broken legs and saved thousands of soldiers from amputation. He revolutionized orthopedic medicine using a material and a concept that artists had been utilizing for thousands of years.

Infant Incubator — Stephane Tarnier

The infant mortality rate in the 19th century was unimaginably high. One out of five newborn babies died in the first couple of months. Stephane Tarnier, a Parisian obstetrician, was acutely aware of this problem. During one of his visits to a local Zoo, he attended an exhibit of chicken incubators and noticed how hatchlings were put in the warm inclosure. Tarnier was able to connect the chicken incubator with temperature regulation for newborn babies. He ordered a special “baby-warming” device which was responsible for reducing the infant mortality rate by 28%.

Printing Press — Johannes Gutenberg

Before the printing press was invented almost no one could write, few could read and knowledge was spread orally. After the invention of the printing press, literacy became common, literature began to flourish, news “papers” started and knowledge started to spread through printed materials.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press by connecting four innovations that had been invented by other people before him: Ink, Paper, Wine press and Movable type. By combining the four existing products into one, Gutenberg invented a device that revolutionized the printing industry. In the first 50 years after the invention of the printing press 8 million books were printed!

Anatomical Atlas — Nikolai Pirogov

It’s hard to underestimate how important it is that a surgeon knows the precise location of each human organ. In the mid nineteen hundreds, however, there were no books that would display the location of human organs with detailed precision. To create an anatomical atlas, one would have to perform an autopsy and record locations of each organ. Unfortunately, when an autopsy was performed, rushing air into the opening would change the position of the organs. As a result, anatomical atlases of the time only depicted approximate locations of human organs.

One winter day, while walking through an open market, Pirogov noticed frozen pig carcasses and later made the connection between a frozen pig carcass and a human body. By freezing the body before performing an autopsy he was able to preserve the precise location of each human organ. (There were no freezers at the time, so he would leave the bodies outside for days in the frigid Russian winter!) In 1852 Pirogov published his Anatomical Atlas which was the first atlas to display the precise locations of each human organ.

Here is a simple mind map to help you visualize the described connections.



Doron, Swade. The Cogwheel Brain. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000
Porudominski, V. Pirogov. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardia, 1965
Tolstoy, Ivan. The Knowledge and The Power. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 1990
Tarde, Gabriel. The Laws of Imitations. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1903
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From. New York: Reverhead Books, 2010
Burke, James. The Day The Universe Changed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995


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