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He had an idea. No one is quite sure where it came from. But its simplicity masked the enormous complexity required to bring it to life. He wanted to change the way people interacted with visual media, expanding access to more people while reducing the cost to make it. He quickly grew the consumer audience by thousandfolds.

Most of his ideas weren’t quite original. Many technical experts assisted him, though they remain largely unsung. He built a first-of-its-kind, all-in-one manufacturing facility that was remarkably productive. In the end, with his company on the brink of its greatest success, a key investor kicked him out.

This wasn’t Steve Jobs, but Johannes Gutenberg.

The Tipping Point

It’s hard to understand from a remove of nearly six centuries how revolutionary the set of innovations that Gutenberg linked together were. He moved European society from a state in which books and scrolls were entirely written by hand and largely unaffordable except by the wealthy to one in which mass production was feasible — producing a good that quickly became within the reach of less-affluent people.

It happened in the historical equivalent of overnight. After a couple decades of thinking and testing, Gutenberg took just a few years to build presses, mix ink, and cast metal type. He immediately got to work printing papal bulls, indulgences, a grammar book, and the Bible. His Bible remains one of the most beautifully printed books—impressive, as it was nearly the first one printed.

Thoughts of Steve Jobs leap easily to mind. When the Macintosh first shipped, there was a similar sense — somehow both of inevitability and that it had just leaped into the world from nowhere. We couldn’t process the disjunct between the computers we were accustomed to and this new happy-faced graphical user interface. People of Gutenberg’s day, fewer than 10 percent of whom were literate, saw printing as a time-saving aid for copying religious works; people in the 1980s suddenly had the tools of specialized professions unlocked and at their fingertips to design and print in an instant.

So, what did Gutenberg actually invent? He’s generally credited with “movable type,” an awkward phrase that doesn’t quite paint a vivid picture. (It would be better to call it “reusable block letters,” but that’s not a very pretty term.) Gutenberg developed a method that allowed him to cast an unlimited numbers of individual characters as metal blocks that could be arranged with other characters in any order, and then reused for other text after a printing job or a page was complete.

Movable type and book printing predated Gutenberg. Books and historical records survive of ceramic, metal, and wood block type designed and used in China, Korea, and Japan starting at least hundreds of years earlier. Yet Gutenberg had an advantage: While those logographic languages have tens of thousands of characters, German, Latin, and other Roman languages have only around 25.

Those high character counts made it difficult to print more than simple books and currency with movable type. Alongside movable type, several Asian countries developed block printing, in which entire pages were carved. This wasn’t that much less efficient than logographic movable type. Block printing also happened pre-Gutenberg in Europe. “We were printing books in the same way that they had been printed for hundreds of years in the East, in China and Korea and Japan,” says Keith Houston, author of The Book, about the history of the book. While some of these printed works and printed money came west, it’s unclear if the concept of movable type in Asia influenced Gutenberg.

A stylized version of a printing shop from the 16th century.

Character Study

We know most of what we do about Gutenberg from court records. He was involved in several lawsuits. He may have trained as a goldsmith, though that was unlikely for a member of his social class. Gutenberg certainly had a connection through his father and his uncle to the local mint, which would have brought him into contact with metal craftsmen.

Whatever the combination, it served as a catalyst — much like Jobs visiting Xerox PARC. Ideas in common use for mass production of coins were never carried into other fields until Gutenberg adapted and made the connection. Minting coins require a multistep process that starts with carving a hardened-steel punch, which is pressed into a softer material that makes a die from which molds are cast. Metal is poured into the molds to mint the coins. Type could be made in the same way, Gutenberg must have reckoned, but with fewer steps.

What we believe to be his process — first documented only decades later — had a type designer carving steel punches, and then hammering the finished punch expertly into a block of copper, called the matrix, which was then placed into a handheld mold. A caster would pour a boiling mix of lead, antimony, and tin into a hole, and, seconds later, it would be cool enough to remove and clean up.

That handheld mold is Gutenberg’s genius, though no trace of any of them survive beyond a loose description in a lawsuit. It had to not only create the relief form of the letter but also add a shaft with a width that could be varied to accommodate any given letter. (An “M” is wider than an “i,” and so forth.) The shaft had to be even and flat on each of its sides and its foot, and every piece of type had to be of uniform height.

Fail at evenness and width, and the text would look ugly or be illegible, especially compared to manuscripts. Fail at an even height or flat bottom, and letters would be smashed into paper, inked too lightly or too heavily, or not inked at all.

A punch (left) created a matrix (center), which was placed into a handheld mold for casting type (right, two views).

The punches and resulting matrices can be reused an enormous number of times, allowing for mass production of type and its quick replacement. Gutenberg was so far ahead of this time that this punch/matrix/mold method persisted largely through the early 1800s. Houston says, “He took the one horribly crippling expensive part of book production and made it cheaper.”

But Gutenberg couldn’t rest on his laurels. His set of chicken-and-egg problems had to be solved simultaneously by modifying aspects of products from existing industries.

Once again, much like Steve Jobs, Gutenberg created entire markets around the product he invented.

He needed to create the right mix of ink that would be persistent, viscous, and quick-drying; design a process of taking the paper of the day, made for writing, and removing the “sizing,” or filler material, through dampening and pressing, to retain an ink impression; and, oh yes, build a press, since none existed. Gutenberg adapted a screw-press design used in both winemaking and papermaking to that end.

Houston notes, “Everything he did was just to some degree incremental improvements, marginal gains, but added all together, the result was this process which was at that point entirely novel.”

And the Downfall

There’s a not-quite-unhappy ending to the story.

Gutenberg churned out Bibles to a positive reception, and money was poised to pour in when the investor who had loaned him a relative fortune called in the debts. Johann Fust prevailed at a hearing and acquired Gutenberg’s main shop, his stock in trade, and his workers. Fust, his children, and Gutenberg’s main assistant even attempted to rewrite the story over the following decades. It didn’t take.

Gutenberg retained a workshop and continued to print modestly and spread his expertise. Then, owing to a war encompassing Mainz and the Catholic Church, Gutenberg was exiled from Mainz and banned from returning. A few years later, Gutenberg’s ban was lifted, and he was granted a sizable pension. He lived roughly into his 70s. While his birth year isn’t known precisely, Gutenberg did outlive Fust.