Johannes Gutenberg’s Greatest Accomplishments

Johannes Gutenberg was a pioneer of the Printing Revolution in Europe with his mechanical movable-type printing press, which is praised for increasing literacy and education in Europe and across the world.

In 1455, in the French town of Strasbourg, German inventor and goldsmith unveiled the world’s first working printing press that used standardized individual parts with mechanized inking. The invention was a big game changer in terms of how knowledge and ideas would be disseminated in the years that followed. Kind courtesy to Gutenberg’s printing press, books became more accessible and affordable, which in turn opened the door wide open for the growth of literature and scholarship.

Basically Gutenberg’s printing press made it possible for mass production of books and other forms of scholarly works in a more affordable and quicker manner, especially to ordinary people across Europe. His machine was famed for printing 42 lines at once, drastically reducing the labor and cost involved. Prior to Gutenberg’s printing press, the industry was all about handwritten manuscripts.

Gutenberg’s printing press provided a conduit for the Renaissance era, the Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, and the Age of Scientific enlightenment to thrive in the centuries that followed.

What other things was this German inventor famous for? In the article below World History Edu talks about the life and major achievements of Johannes Gutenberg, the German goldsmith, publisher, and printer who invented the first known printing press in history.

Gutenberg’s holy mirror business

He almost went bankrupt at some point in his career. His indebtedness was the result of a failed investment venture in holy mirrors. Gutenberg would polish the metal mirrors and then sell them to customers who believed could pick up “holy light” from religious artifacts and relics.

He tried to sell the merchandise to people embarking on pilgrimage to Aachen (in present-day Germany). He was counting on recouping his investments during 1439 religious exhibition (in Aachen) of relics from Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. That year’s flood meant that the exhibition could not happen as planned; hence Gutenberg was left in an uncomfortable financial situation. To appease his creditors, he gave them some amount of shares in his printing press business.

Johannes Gutenberg and the wealthy financier Johann Fust

L-R: Johannes Gutenberg (1395 – 1468), inventor of the printing press in Europe, and Johann Fust (1400-1466), German printer.

He had some financial support from German businessman and moneylender Johann Fust. Gutenberg borrowed about 800 guilders from Fust in 1450. He used the tools and materials in his workshop as securities for the loan. In 1452, he took another 800-guilder loan from Fust, granting the financier a partnership deal in exchange for the loan (at around 6% compound interest).

Relationship between the two men soured due to differences in strategies. Fust was all about cashing in quickly on his investments. Gutenberg, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that the machine was perfected.

Fust filed a lawsuit again Gutenberg and won. The inventor was asked to pay the total sum of the loans plus the compounded interest. All in all, Gutenberg had to find ways of coughing up about 2,000 guilders for his former business partner.

To defray the debt, Fust took over the type for Gutenberg’s Forty-two-Line Bible and other tangible assets of Gutenberg’s.

Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer went on to become the first people to have their names on a printed book in Europe. The book, a Psalter, was finished on August 14, 1457 in Mainz.

Meandering close to bankruptcy, Gutenberg set up a new printing shop, not as large as his previous one.

Johannes Gutenberg greatest accomplishment – the Gutenberg Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg

Replica of the printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg | Location: the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum

After a few years of research into the printing business, he proceeded to commit himself into developing a printing press. Having lived about five years in Strasbourg, he returned to Mainz in 1448. To begin his printing press development, he borrowed some money from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus.

It is likely that he gained a bit of experience working with a renowned German engraver named the Master of the Playing Cards.

With his printing press almost operational, he was able to solicit for finance from a German financier known as Johann Fust. He took out about 1600 guilders from Fust. After setting up his workshop at Humbrechthof in Mainz, Gutenberg took under his wings Fust’s son-in-law Peter Schoffer.

His work on the Bible began around 1452. Three years later, he had finished working on one of his greatest masterpieces, the 42-line Bible, which came to be known as the Gutenberg Bible. The majority of the 180 copies that were printed were made on paper, while the rest came on vellum (material from animal skin or membrane).

The Gutenberg Bible

Johannes Gutenberg

A vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Also known as the 42-line-per page Bible, the Gutenberg Bible was the most influential book printed by Gutenberg. Printed around 1455, the Gutenberg Bible holds the record of being the first printed version of the Bible.

The Gutenberg Bible ushered in what historians like to call the Gutenberg Revolution, an era of mass communication, unrestricted dissemination of information, and the modern-day knowledge-based economy.

The book has received stellar praise for being pleasingly and technically brilliant. It holds a unique place in the collective history of the human population.

Considering the fact that the Bible was at the time undoubtedly the most famous book in Europe, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press technology was a game-changer for not just social and political landscape, but also the economy of Europe.

Out of the 180 copies that were made, forty-nine copies survive to this day. Those copies are stored across Europe in national museums and libraries. American bibliophile and philanthropist James Lenox’s (1800-1880) Gutenberg Bible can be found at the New York Public Library. Lenox purchased the Bible in 1847, making him the first U.S. citizen to buy the book.

Innovations and technologies by Johannes Gutenberg

In 1450, in the French town of Strasbourg, Johannes Gutenberg, who had incorporated technologies from wine and oil making, unveiled the world’s first working printing press. | Image: Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

In building the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg incorporated a number of technologies that existed at the time. His goal was to make printing as affordable as much as possible.

He used movable type printing with adjustable wooden characters. He used an oil-based ink and a wooden printing press. That technology came from screw presses used in agriculture.

Another point worth mentioning is his use of long-lasting reusable alloy (a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony) that was malleable and cooled down fast.  This allowed him to produce better quality and durable type for printing.

Furthermore, the oil-based ink proved to be suitable for the metal. It also transferred well to vellum or paper. Gutenberg could obtain a firm even pressure on the printing surfaces because of those materials.

Other achievements of Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg's contributions and accomplishments

Mark Twain on Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg was a craftsman who worked sometimes as a gem cutter. This explains why some historians claim that the German also invented a gemstone-polishing device.

On January 18, 1465, Johannes Gutenberg was given the honor of Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by Mainz Archbishop Adolph von Nassau. With that he was entitled to some advantages, including a stipend and some tax credits on grain and wine.

Gutenberg’s printing press could print 42 lines at once. What this meant was that labor and cost fell relative to handwritten manuscript techniques.

His printing press provided a conduit for the Renaissance era, the Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

With the technology of the printing press, ideas and knowledge could be disseminated in a more affordable manner, especially to the ordinary people. This increased the literacy rate in Europe, threatening the political and religious authority. For example the printing press allowed Protestant Reformer Martin Luther to mass produce his pamphlets to spread his ideas of the reformation. It’s estimated that more than a quarter million copies of Luther’s short theses – Ninety-five Theses (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) – were produced. This was all down to the magnificent impact Gutenberg had on Europe and the rest of the world.

Kind courtesy to Gutenberg’s printing press, mass communication was made possible, which in turn transformed the social structure on the continent. No longer was majority of the population blinded by ignorance and crippled by illiteracy. Thus the power of the few literate elite started fading away as more and more people gained access to scholarly works.

With cost of printing falling significantly, it became increasingly easier for the circulation of ideas and knowledge, once considered blasphemous or unpalatable by the religious and political elites. Steadily, the middle class in Europe began mounting fierce challenge to the authority held by ultra-elites.

In 1999, the Arts & Entertainment Network puts Johannes Gutenberg at the number one spot on the list of most influential people of the second millennium AD.

Gutenberg’s printing press has been ranked number one on many lists of famous inventions of the second millennium AD.

Johannes Gutenberg and Laurens Janszoon coster

According to Dutch physician and Latin poet Hadrianus Junius’s 1568 book Batavia, the movable type printing press came from the Dutch Laurens Janszoon Coster (c. 1370-c. 1440). Hadrianus goes on to say that Johann Fust once worked in Haarlem in the Netherlands for Laurens.

Shortly after Laurens’ death, Fust moved to Mainz and then collaborated with Gutenberg to come out with a printing press. However, scholars often cite the lack of any strong evidence to show that Laurens actually printed with the very technology Gutenberg used in making his movable type printing press.


Johannes Gutenberg

Anonymous portrait of Gutenberg dated 1440, Gutenberg Museum

He died in 1468 in his hometown Mainz. He was buried at a Franciscan church in the city. His grave was lost forever because the church and the cemetery suffered a heavy destruction sometime.

The Project Gutenberg

Established in December 1971, the Project Gutenberg (PG), an organization founded (by American writer Michael S. Hart) to digitize some of the most important cultural works in human history, was named in honor of Johannes Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg’s goal is to make the books that it archives available to the public for free in digital formats such as PDF, EPUB, HTML, and among others.

More Johannes Gutenberg facts

Gutenberg was not the first to use movable type printing press; however, he was the first European to do so. | Image: Johannes Gutenberg in a 16th-century copper engraving

Other than the following facts below there is not much that modern historians know about the early life or personal life of Johannes Gutenberg:

  1. The inventor of the printing press was born in Mainz, located in present-day Rhineland-Palatinate, a western state of Germany. His father, Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, was a patrician of Mainz. His mother, Else Wyrich, was the daughter of a businessman.
  2. In some accounts, his father is said to be a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz.
  3. It is a bit unclear as to the exact year Gutenberg was born. It is often suggested that his date of birth fell between 1390 and 1403. His birth city, Mainz, picked June 24, 1400 as his official date of birth.
  4. He entered into the world of work as a merchant; however he would later gravitate to a blacksmithing and goldsmithing business.
  5. When he was in his 30s, he and his family relocated to Strasbourg in eastern France, just on the border with present-day Germany.
  6. His relocation was due to the conflict that broke out between the patricians and the guilds.
  7. A court document from 1436/37 has his name in relation to a failed marriage promise to a Strasbourg woman named Ennelin.
  8. German inventor and craftsman Johannes Gutenberg spent the bulk part of his working career in two European cities – Strasbourg, France, and Mainz, Germany.
  9. Although the Chinese had book printing since the 11th century CE, Gutenberg’s printing press was groundbreaking in the sense that it had serial standardized individual parts. Those parts revolutionized the way printing was made, in addition to the speed and cost advantages.
  10. The first portrait of Gutenberg appeared in Heinrich Pantaleon’s 1567 book on famous Germans.
  11. Virtually all the books that Gutenberg printed did not bear his name or the date of printing. This has made it a bit difficult to properly ascertain which books the inventor printed. It’s been said that he printed a number of church documents, most famous of them being a papal letter. Not definitely proven, however, it’s been said that he printed some editions of Ars Minor, a Latin grammar schoolbook written by Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus.
  12. He is credited with printing copies of folio Bible (Biblia Sacra) using 42 lines on each page. Even though it sold for about 30 florins, Gutenberg’s folio Bible was still relatively cheaper than the manuscript Bible. Besides, the latter required more than a year to prepare.
  13. There was also a 36-line edition of the Bible that is credited to Gutenberg. Some scholars reason that he printed it in the German town of Bamberg in the late 1450s.
  14. Due to sheer amount of work needed to make several thousands of individual type sorts for his movable printing press, historians estimate that Gutenberg’s workshop employed about two dozen workers. .
  15. Gutenberg did not rake in much profit before the printing press technology disseminated to other European cities, especially in Venice and Florence
  16. Towards the latter part of his life, his contributions to the city of Mainz were just some of the reasons why he started receiving an annual pension from the archbishop of Mainz in 1465.

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