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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.

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A quill pen

Movable metal type 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.


A printing press 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 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!


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