Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith, printer and inventor who is most famous for his printing press which initiated the Printing Revolution and made books affordable for the common man for the first time. This was made possible by Gutenberg’s introduction of mechanical movable type printing to Europe, considered by many as the most important event of the second millennium. However, Gutenberg didn’t enjoy the success of his invention and it was only centuries after his death that he was recognized as one of the most influential men in history. Know about the family, life and achievements of Johannes Gutenberg through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 His surname Gutenberg comes from his ancestral house

Depiction of Hof zum Gutenberg
Depiction of Hof zum Gutenberg

Born in the city of Mainz in Germany, Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was the youngest son of Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden and his second wife Else Wyrich. The year of his birth is not known with certainty. It is usually put by historians between 1394 and 1404. In 15th century Germany, it was a custom to take the name of one’s house as one’s surname. The family of Johannes lived in his paternal ancestral house known as Hof zum Gutenberg. While his father took his surname Gensfleisch zur Laden from other family properties, Johannes took his surname from Hof zum Gutenberg.

#2 His father had a managerial role in the Mainz mint

Gutenberg’s father Friele Gensfleisch was a goldsmith who had also served as a town councilor, while his mother Else Wyrich was the daughter of a respectable shopkeeper in Mainz. Friele Gensfleish also had some managerial role in the Mainz mint and Johannes probably grew up learning how coins were made. Johannes had a brother and sister named Friele and Else respectively. He also had a half-sister from his father’s first marriage named Patze.

#3 His family had to leave Mainz due to an uprising against patricians

Johannes Gutenberg portrait
Portrait of Johannes Gutenberg

Patrician is a term used to denote members of the aristocratic families who lived in Europe at the time. They paid few or no taxes in Mainz and were given annual payments, which came from taxing the residents who were not patricians. Due to the devastating bubonic plague that hit Europe at the time, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians and Gutenberg’s family was among the many that had to leave Mainz in 1411. They probably moved to the town of Eltville, where Johannes’s mother had an inherited estate. Nothing is known about Gutenberg’s schooling though it is probable that he attended the University of Erfurt in Erfurt, Germany.

#4 Gutenberg most probably didn’t get married

Gutenberg’s father Friele died in 1419. His family had returned to Mainz earlier and Johannes remained in his hometown for some time after that. Nothing much is known about the 15 years of Gutenberg’s life after his father’s death. By 1434, Gutenberg was definitely living in city of Strasbourg, which was well known for metal-crafts. In Strasbourg, there was a case filed against Gutenberg by a patrician woman named Ellewibel zur Isernin Thure which accused Gutenberg of breaking a promise of marrying her daughter, Ennelin. The outcome of the case is not known but it is certain Gutenberg didn’t marry her. There exists no evidence that Gutenberg ever married anyone or had any children.

 

#5 He entered into an ill-fated venture involving pilgrim mirrors

Aachen, during 15th century, was the most famous shrine in Germany. It was located around 160 miles northwest of Strasbourg. There was a holy event scheduled in Aachen in 1439 in which thousands of people were expected. Many pilgrims believed that if they were able to catch the reflection of the holy relics at Aachen in a mirror, they would also trap some of their healing powers. In 1438, Johannes Gutenberg entered into a venture to make convex mirrors for the pilgrims, which he thought would make him a huge profit. However, after thousands of mirrors were made, the Aachen pilgrimage was postponed due to flood and disease. Gutenberg was now required to handle the investors and he agreed to share with them a secret which was probably his plan to implement mass printing with movable type.

Gutenberg Museum in Mainz
The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany

 

#6 Johannes Gutenberg is most famous for introducing movable type printing to Europe

Movable type is a technology of printing that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document. This system of printing was invented between 1041 and 1048 in China by artisan Bi Sheng. Around 1230, Koreans invented metal type movable printing which was similar to Gutenberg’s process. However, unlike the 26-letter alphabet used by Europeans, Chinese language uses tens of thousands of characters while Korean also has around 40,000 characters. By 1450, Johannes Gutenberg had made his own version of a metal movable-type printing press with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mold. He thus introduced movable type printing to Europe, which would have far reaching effects. The limited number of characters in European languages was an essential factor ensuring the effectiveness of Gutenberg’s invention.

Replica of Gutenberg's press
A Replica of Gutenberg’s press at the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum

 

#7 The Gutenberg Bible is one of the most valuable books in the world

In the early 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg used his invention to produce around 180 copies of the bible, now famous as the Gutenberg Bible. Due to their remarkable quality, the books were sold quickly with some fetching as much as 30 Florins – about three years wages for a clerk at the time. The Gutenberg Bible was the first mass-produced book in Europe and it has since achieved an iconic status. Out of some 180 original printed copies of the book, 49 still exist of which less than half are complete. They are mostly held by libraries, museums or universities. The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978, when it went for $2.2 million. Experts estimate that a complete copy would now fetch around $35 million at auction.

Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library

 

#8 He couldn’t enjoy the success of his invention

To carry out his Bible project, Gutenberg had borrowed money from a wealthy moneylender Johann Fust. Fust’s future son-in-law Peter Schoffer also joined in the enterprise later. In 1456, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust in which Fust accused Gutenberg of misusing his funds and demanded his money back. Gutenberg’s debt exceeded 20,000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop’s court and the court decided in his favor, giving Fust control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles. The judgement led to Gutenberg becoming nearly a bankrupt while Fust and Schoffer used his invention to print the Mainz Psalter, a religious book commissioned by the Mainz archbishop in 1457. The Mainz Psalter was the first book to display the name of its printers, Fust and Schoffer, but it had no mention of the inventor of the printing process, Johannes Gutenberg.

Johann Fust
Johann Fust

 

#9 Gutenberg was given the title Hofmann by the Archbishop of Mainz

In 1461–62, there was a warlike conflict for the throne of the Archbishop of Mainz. Mainz was sacked by Archbishop Adolph von Nassau and Gutenberg left the city. He remained in the town of Eltville for a few years before returning to Mainz. In January 1465, Gutenberg’s achievements were somewhat recognized. He was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by Archbishop Adolph von Nassau. The honor also included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2,180 liters of grain and 2,000 liters of wine tax-free. Johannes Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468 and was buried in the Franciscan church at Mainz. He remained financially unsuccessful and largely unknown during his lifetime. The enormity of his contribution was only realized by future generations.

Gutenberg Bible stamp
1952 U.S. Stamp commemorating the 500th anniversary of the printing of Gutenberg Bible

 

#10 Johannes Gutenberg is considered one of the most influential people in history

Before Johannes Gutenberg there were only about 30,000 books in all of Europe. His printing technology quickly spread across Europe and by 1500 printing presses had produced more than 20 million volumes. The output in 16th century was an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. Gutenberg’s invention for the first time made books affordable for common people, increased literacy and broke the monopoly of the rich on education. It played a key role in the development of Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. The printing revolution started by Gutenberg’s work altered the structure of society, challenged religious institutions and is considered a key event leading to the modern era. In 1997, Time Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium; while in 1999 A&E Network ranked Johannes Gutenberg as the most influential person of the second millennium.

Europe Printing Revolution graph
Estimated output of printed books in Europe from 1450 to 1800

 

Gutenberg’s Contribution to Printing

Apart from introducing metal movable-type printing to Europe, Johannes Gutenberg invented many unique elements which were responsible for the remarkable quality of the printed material. He was the first to make type from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. This was better suited for printing than previous materials and proved critical in producing high-quality printed books. Gutenberg ingeniously used a special matrix enabling quick and precise molding of new type blocks from a uniform template. He is also credited with introducing an oil-based ink which was more durable than previously used water-based inks.

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