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Johannes Gutenberg and the Birth of Printing

Updated on June 25, 2011

The Inventor of the Printing Press

The history of the father of printing in the west is a somewhat sad one. While printing was invented before him, Johannes or Johann Gutenberg is the man who made it both famous and profitable. Before him, printers in Europe made printing type out of wood, which tended to rot and degrade the quality of prints. In places like Korea and China, others had already struck upon the idea to use metal type, though this was surely unbeknownst to Johann Gutenberg.

Johann Gutenberg was born in c. 1398-1468 in Mainz, Germany. He grew into the family business of goldsmithing and other jobs. After many adventures in business, most unfavorable, Gutenberg came upon the idea that would make his name famous to the world. In approximately 1440 Gutenberg presented the world with what would be his legacy and one of the world's greatest boons: metal, moveable type. Now printers could produce entire books much more quickly and cheaply. The printing revolution had begun!

Alas, the production of the printing press was not immediate. First, Gutenberg had to produce all of the many moveable type pieces. This cost a great deal of money, of which he didn't have enough to finance the entire process. So, he turned to another man, Johann Fust. Johann Fust was an able businessman who gave Gutenberg enough to finish Europe's first printing press as we understand the term today. Together, the 2 men produced a copy of the Bible, their first book, which is known as the Gutenberg Bible.

However, Johann Gutenberg was not able to fully pay Fust the money he'd originally borrowed, and the latter sued him, gaining ownership of the printing press. This left Gutenberg with even less money and fewer prospects for the future. He continued to dabble in printing though slowly fell into destitution and anonymity. This is highly ironic given that a single one of his Gutenberg Bibles can sell for over 5 million dollars, as one did in New York in 1987.

Gutenberg was ultimately buried in a graveyard that was later moved or destroyed, not allowing we moderns to even know where the great man was buried. However, his memory lives on and refuses to be forgotten, particularly aided by statues around Germany (and possibly other parts of the world) of Johann Gutenberg, the man who truly gave us the written word.

Most of the information from this article came from "Who is the Most Important Person from History?" in the book "What a World 2: Amazing Stories from Around the Globe," by Milada Broukal.


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