History heroes Children

Bookish revolution

A statue of Johannes Gutenberg in Germany.   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Who was Johannes Gutenberg?

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, around 1400 CE. His father was one of the city’s ‘patricians.’ Young Johannes first trained to be a goldsmith. It is believed that, after some craftsmen guilds rebelled against the nobles, his family was exiled to Strasbourg on the German-French border. Johannes had always been fascinated by books, then produced by woodblocks. This was an expensive and time-consuming method. So he worked in secret on making a “type” with smaller/individual characters that could be cast easily, was adaptable and affordable. He borrowed money from a prosperous blacksmith, Johannes Fust. The printing press he developed first brought out the ‘Forty-two line Bible.’ As the story goes, Fust lost faith in Gutenberg and took him to court. The judge’s verdict went against Gutenberg, who had to turn everything over to Fust and his partners. But he continued to print books. In his lifetime, Gutenberg made no money, and even lost his eyesight later in life. He died in 1468, little knowing he had changed the world immeasurably.

What was the moveable type?

A Gutenberg press on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

A Gutenberg press on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Palm leaves, bottles of ink, quills, soft scratchy sounds of scholars and students writing away... for thousands of years since the invention of writing (3500-3000 BCE in Sumer, West Asia), this was how things looked. Around 1000 CE, the Chinese developed a porcelain “moveable type” orparts engraved with characters, numerals, and letters that could be reproduced easily on paper. Woodblocks too came to be used for printing. Then, around the 1450s, Gutenberg built on these early developments and developed a moveable type using metals like lead, tin, the lesser-known antimony, as well as an adjustable casting mould. The ‘type’ placed in blocks could be modified and replicated easily with the mould. This innovation and Gutenberg’s wooden printing press, adapted from those in current use in Europe especially in the wine presses, enabled a revolution in printing and the production of books that would allow more people to read.

How did he change the world?

Earlier, only big institutions like the Church and monarchy, and important people like rich nobles could afford the production of books. Gutenberg’s many innovations — a more easily made moveable type, a mould, a printing press — led to a new way to print books that was quick, simple, and affordable. The machine he developed remained unchanged for 500 years until the steam-powered press came along! Now more books could be produced, by more people, and books became more common. This encouraged people to read, to think on their own, to have ideas and start experimenting. This ‘revolution’ in printing had an important role to play in the European Renaissance of the 15-17th centuries. The spread of knowledge was now unstoppable.

Which was the first book printed?

A page from the Diamond Sutra, which was printed around the fourth-fifth centuries CE in China.

A page from the Diamond Sutra, which was printed around the fourth-fifth centuries CE in China.   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gutenberg printed the ‘forty-two line Bible’ in the 1450s, but this wasn’t the first book. The earliest book is almost 1300 years old, and is an example of woodblock printing. The Chinese book, Diamond Sutra, a text of Mahayana Buddhism, was collected first around the 4-5 th centuries CE, and printed in 868 CE. It is now at the British Library. Centuries later, the script and the book’s illustrations remain clear and sharp. A couple of centuries after the invention of woodblock printing, a Chinese official, Bi (or Pi) Sheng invented ‘movable type’ in the 11th century CE. He used clay to form individual characters. These were then baked in a kiln, placed in an iron frame and again warmed. In 1377 CE, this type was used in Korea to produce the ‘Jikji,’ a collection of thoughts based on Zen Buddhism. All this was 75 years before Gutenberg produced his Bible in Mainz, Germany.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 10:11:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/who-was-johannes-gutenberg-how-did-he-change-the-world/article34429438.ece

Next Story