What Did Gutenberg Invent?

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Gutenberg is credited with having invented printing using movable type. It has been assumed that the process he invented around 1450 was the method that continued to be used for another 500 years. But Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas have made a new discovery that throws doubt on that.

Quill Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Gutenberg is credited with having invented printing using movable type. It has been assumed that the process he invented around 1450 was the method that continued to be used for another 500 years.

But Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas have made a new discovery that throws doubt on that.

A few years ago Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas set out to find a method of dating books.

Some letters get damaged, making their printed form more distinctive, and their use in different publications links them to the same printing shop and an approximate time period.

Paul and Blaise collaborated on a system to identify these distinctive letters. In the process they made a discovery that was so controversial that they revised their methods over and over again to test their findings.

But the incontrovertible truth was staring them in the face.

The full story


Thinking History

Computer technology has revealed just how complicated the invention of movable type actually was.

We now have to jettison existing assumptions about the way Gutenberg created his type; but as yet no plausible alternative has been suggested.

Can you provide an answer? But whilst we brood on this problem, there are plenty of other questions with which we can occupy ourselves.

We can begin to tackle these from the evidence in the programmes, and you may like to pursue them further through the books suggested in further reading at the bottom of this page.

Biographies

Blaise Aguera y Arcas

Blaise Aguera y Arcas Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Blaise Aguera y Arcas is a physicist who's worked in various fields: engineering, cryptography, neuroscience, computer technology, and now early books.

He enjoys applying his skills to different kinds of problems not traditionally associated with the field of physics, including, as a teenager, the search for extra-terrestrial life. The appeal of rare books for Blaise comes in handling the earliest products of mass technology, which yet retain the beauty of craftsmanship and of art. His interest in the period extends to early music - he plays Renaissance and Baroque instruments.

The research featured in What Did Gutenberg Invent? is being written up by Blaise and Paul Needham under the title 'How Were the Earliest European Printing Types Made? While they both continue to study who might have invented the punch and matrix, Blaise is also working in the biological field on the analysis of neurons.

Paul Needham

Paul Needham Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Paul Needham's father was a printer so he was exposed to the field at an early age. What intrigues him about books is that it's possible to read beyond the content to interpret information about the objects themselves. He believes that it will take decades to fully understand how the world of bookmaking in the 15th century worked.

As Librarian at the Scheide Rare Books Library in Princeton, Paul continues to study, with Blaise, the question of who invented the punch and matrix.

Stan Nelson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Stan Nelson

Stan Nelson began his illustrious career at the age of ten when he won a rubber stamp printing kit. 42 years later he was presented with the Laureate Award of the American Printing History Association.

His job as a Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has enabled him to combine a hobby and work. His team preserves materials and information about printing, organises exhibitions, does public demonstrations of printing and related skills and conducts lectures. He's been hand-making his own type moulds for 30 years. Each mould takes up to forty hours to construct and 'justify' so that it will make accurate type. He's currently writing a book on the typefounder's hand mould, but also finds time to practise the martial art of Ninjutsu in which he's a black belt.

Further Reading:

New Worlds, Lost Worlds: the Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603
S. Brigden (Allen Lane, 2000)
The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries
P. Burke, (Blackwell, 1998)
The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe
E. Eisenstein (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Wordly Goods
L. Jardine (Macmillan, 1996)

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

What Did Gutenberg Invent?: Conclusions Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

What Did Gutenberg Invent?: Conclusions

It appears that the development of modern printing might not have been as swift as we once believed

Article
The discovery that changed our view of Gutenberg Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

The discovery that changed our view of Gutenberg

Close examination of Gutenberg texts revealed evidence that required us to rethink how he worked.

Article
 Printing Revolution Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Printing Revolution

Before the printing revolution, books had to be written by hand, making them very expensive. Afterwards books became consumer products.

Article
Forth Road Bridge Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

Forth Road Bridge

Scotland's Forth Road Bridge may not be the most beautiful bridge over the Firth of Forth, but it is an incredible feat of engineering and is integral to the economy of the entire area. However, rust is threatening to destroy the cables that suspend the road. This free course uses video to explore the issues associated with the potential demise of this great bridge.

Free course
1 hr
Computers are everywhere Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: photos.com activity icon

History & The Arts 

Computers are everywhere

A timeline of developments in information and communication technologies, from the Spanish Armada to just-before-we-started-to-Google.

Activity
How did 18th Century people react to eclipses? Creative commons image Icon Wellcome Library, London under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

How did 18th Century people react to eclipses?

With jokes, with panic, with searches for religious meaning: A collection of contemporary responses to eclipses from 18th Century publications.

Article
The origins of ancient medicine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

The origins of ancient medicine

Eleanor Betts explores how the craft of medicine began to develop in the ancient world in the Mediterranean and Near East.

Article
Origin Day lecture: Armand Leroi response Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Armand Leroi video icon

History & The Arts 

Origin Day lecture: Armand Leroi response

Chair of the event Armand Leroi offers his response to Professor Wilson's lecture.

Video
5 mins
Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

History & The Arts 

Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century

This free course, Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century, examines the role that Scots played in contributing to the developments in healthcare during the nineteenth century. The radical transformation of medicine in Europe included the admission of women as doctors and the increased numbers of specialised institutions such as asylums. Such developments were also influenced by wider social, economic, political and cultural backgrounds these are also examined.

Free course
10 hrs