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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)

 

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