What Did Gutenberg Invent? - The printing process

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing process but what, exactly, did he invent? The details are somewhat sparse.

A quill pen Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Movable metal type Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The printing process using woodblocks were first used during the Sui Dynasty in China (circa 581) and became popularised in the Tang Dynasty (circa 618).

A system of printing from movable metal type was developed in Korea using Chinese characters a generation before Gutenberg's invention. A commoner by the name of Bi Sheng used movable-type blocks for printing during the Qingli years (circa 1041) of the Northern Song.

But there's no evidence of a transmission of technology from Korea to Western Europe.

Invention requires putting together disparate elements in a novel way, making a cohesive, coherent process that can then be carried on by many different people. It was Gutenberg's combination of the printing press, type, paper and ink that made the invention a success.

Invention

A printing press Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The printing process credited to Gutenberg involved creating a mould or matrix. A letter, carved back to front on a metal punch, was hammered into copper, creating a mould or matrix. This was then filled with hot metal, which cooled down to create a letter. The matrix could be reused to create hundreds of identical letters. These letters were then placed on a rack, inked and, using a press, endless copies could be made. The letters could be reused in any combination, earning the process the name of 'movable type'.

But no accounts have been left to prove that this was the method that was first used and no tools survived.

Thinking History

Printing blocks Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Q. How quickly did printing take off?

By 1500 there were over 1000 printers in Europe, so clearly it took off pretty quickly. What were the necessary conditions for setting up a press? The printing entrepreneur would need a skilled body of craftsmen, so he had to be located in a town. He needed to have access to trade routes so that he could market his commodity. He needed large amounts of capital - the only piece of biographical data we have about Gutenberg is the record of a court case concerning money. Given these conditions we should not be surprised that Venice emerged as one of the leading centres of print. But by the end of the 15th century the new process was found in towns far smaller and less wealthy than Venice. What had been a hugely expensive technology had quickly become adapted so that it could be used to churn out cheap works, as well as prestige or educational products.

But the new insights into the complexity of production mean we are still in the dark about several crucial stages in the development of typefaces and the dissemination of the technology. So how did it happen? Over to you!

 

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

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
Latitude and Longitude Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University article icon

History & The Arts 

Latitude and Longitude

When people began to travel long distances over deserts or seas, they needed a way to fix their position. Accordingly, a global grid was developed, incorporating lines of latitude and longitude.

Article
A short history of the early days of artificial intelligence Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Archive.org article icon

History & The Arts 

A short history of the early days of artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence seems very much of our time - but as Jessica Riskin explains, history records many attempts to create machines that think.

Article
Darwin on hunting with bolas Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

Darwin on hunting with bolas

Written in the language of his time, Darwin records attempts to hunt using a traditional Spanish weapon.

Article
Fossil evidence for evolution Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU image library article icon

History & The Arts 

Fossil evidence for evolution

Although Darwin was originally disappointed by the evidence provided by the fossil record, subsequent work has more than borne out his theories, explains Peter Skelton.

Article
Origin Day lecture: Peter Bowler response Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Peter Bowler video icon

History & The Arts 

Origin Day lecture: Peter Bowler response

Peter Bowler offers his reaction to Professor Wilson's lecture.

Video
5 mins
Unsung heroes Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Unsung heroes

LCD ( Liquid Crystal Display) technology plays a vital role in today's electronic industry, not least in computers and mobile phones. But who developed it, and how?

Article
Electric Dreams: Technology makeover Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU activity icon

History & The Arts 

Electric Dreams: Technology makeover

Let our interactive take you on an electric trip down memory lane.

Activity
The first geological map of the UK Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: York Museums Trust article icon

History & The Arts 

The first geological map of the UK

One of the most important maps of the UK ever made – described as the ‘Magna Carta of geology’ – is to go on permanent public display in Cambridge after being restored to its former glory. 

Article