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Print pioneer profiles: Johannes Gutenberg

The history of print is a long and fascinating one. Long before print management existed as a concept, human beings had to overcome the numerous technical difficulties involved in reproducing images and text in a non-labour intensive, regular fashion. The man most commonly credited with achieving this aim is German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg: inventor of the printing press.


Early life

Born in Mainz at around 1398 (the exact year of Gutenberg’s birth isn’t accurately known), Gutenberg came from a family of merchants and goldsmiths – his father worked for the ecclesiastical mint. Gutenberg grew up with a knowledge of goldsmithing, and is thought to have enrolled in the University of Erfurt in the early 15th century. While little is known of Gutenberg’s movements from around this time, we do know that he wound up in Strasbourg by at least 1434. Gutenberg fell afoul of some debtors at around this time, and although he couldn’t afford to settle his debts the inventor mysteriously promised to share ‘a secret’ instead – many believe that this was Gutenberg’s idea for printing with moveable type.


The printing press

Whether or not Gutenberg sacrificed the secret of his invention in order to evade the interest of Strasbourg’s bailiffs, no-one had put the concept into action before Johannes himself did so in 1450. Undoubtedly, Gutenberg’s skills as a goldsmith and a blacksmith came in handy when it came to the technical aspects of his revolutionary printing press. However, there was a gap of some ten years between Gutenberg’s revelation of the secret of print in Kunst und Aventur and his production of the first working printing press, so presumably there were numerous technological and practical considerations to overcome before his vision could be made flesh.


Just five years later, the Gutenberg Bible was being churned out by the incredible printing press – it was the world’s first book to be printed using movable type and initially boasted around 180 copies. Movable type printing was to prove revelatory – it was almost twice as fast as typographic block printing and became one of the world’s first assembly line-style technologies.


His legacy

While Gutenberg is widely credited as the inventor of the printing press and the father of movable type, the technology is actually far older than many people realise. Chinese printer Bi Sheng developed movable type technology 400 years before Gutenberg’s invention, but the German had the foresight to combine a number of existing technologies with inventions of his own devising to create a practical, useable machine. The printing press spread across Europe in the years that followed, helping to transform literacy from a skill reserved for the cognoscenti to a basic human right. This was the birth of the age of print, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that colour printing, digital printing and print management would never have been the same without the work of Johannes Gutenberg.

This is the first entry in our new print pioneer profiles series, taking a look at some of the creative souls behind the most innovative technologies in print. Look out for the next entry on the PMG blog, and contact us if you’d like to find out how print management can help to reduce your inside and outside print bills.

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