Skip to content

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
The Italian Patient - Santa Maria Nuova Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

The Italian Patient - Santa Maria Nuova

The poor received free treatment at hospitals, six senior doctors were employed and food and wine were served to patients - 14th Century Florence could challenge our own NHS

Article
History of The Transit of Venus Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

History of The Transit of Venus

There are no records of astronomers observing the Transit of Venus until the 17th century. Professor David W Hughes picks up the story

Article
A brief history of evolution Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

A brief history of evolution

Where are we now along the evolutionary path? Have we stopped evolving? And what does it mean if we have? The Next Big Thing explores how the evolution theories have changed and developed over the years.

Article
Birth of the welfare state Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Birth of the welfare state

It was not until after the Second World War that the British Welfare state took its mature form. In a climate of relief after the war, a climate diffused with an idealism for a new, more just society, welfare legislation had bipartisan support. There was a clear sense of rebuilding a better Britain.

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
Darwin: The Expert View Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Darwin: The Expert View

Dr Paul Underhill considers the emotional turmoil Charles Darwin underwent as he faced the prospect of exposing his research on evolution to the Victorian public.

Article
The Birth of (Synthetic) Dyeing Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU article icon

History & The Arts 

The Birth of (Synthetic) Dyeing

Today, the world’s dyestuffs industry produces around 500 000 tonnes of synthetic dye each year. It’s come a long way since William Henry Perkins discovered mauve.

Article
Humphry Davy, laughing gas and the era of self-experimentation Creative commons image Icon Wellcome Images under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Humphry Davy, laughing gas and the era of self-experimentation

When Humphry Davy wanted to explore the properties of nitrous oxide, he decided the best way would be to experiment upon himself.

Article