Many people think of Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398–1468) as the “father of printing.” And, in a certain sense, he is. However, he is not the inventor of the printing press, or of printing ink, or even of moveable type. Gutenberg’s Bible was neither the first book printed using moveable type, nor the first book he printed using moveable type. And it certainly is not his most important contribution to graphic communication.
Even though Gutenberg did not invent most of the devices for which he is commonly given credit, his achievements are monumental. They are rooted in his ability to scientifically synthesize various mechanical elements into an economical, practical product. Gutenberg built on the work of others, starting with their existing tools and devices, which he modified, refined and perfected to suit his purpose.
Gutenberg did, however, invent the adjustable mold, which allowed the person casting metal type to adjust the width, enabling a narrow or a wide character to be locked in preparation for casting. This meant that an artisan could replicate a given character many thousands of times. It also established the principle, three centuries before it was widely adopted by industry, of interchangeable parts – the basis of modern mass-produced products.
The Power of Printing
Gutenberg’s innovation would change the map of Europe, weaken the power of the Catholic Church, and shift centers of learning and knowledge from religious to secular – all within less than 50 years.
In 1455, there were no printing presses in Europe. By 1500, presses were operating in 245 cities, from Stockholm to Palermo. Before 1455, there were no printed texts in Europe. By 1500, over 20 million books had been printed – one book for every five people living in Western Europe. No previous invention in human history had spread so far, so fast.
Most innovations that change a paradigm do so by first succeeding in the existing “norm.” So it was with Gutenberg’s. His first, and intended, client was the Catholic Church. Prior to Gutenberg, religious scribes had the primary responsibility for recording and transcribing all knowledge and teachings of the Church. Transcribing the Bible and religious texts was a tedious, time-consuming and error-prone process. Gutenberg’s idea was to sell his Bibles in an “unfinished” form (illumination would be added later by the scribes) to monasteries and religious centers throughout Europe.
The Might of Knowledge
Leaders of the Catholic Church thought that mass-produced copies of its teachings could strengthen its power and authority. Their idea was to disseminate thousands of copies of identical religious texts, as a way to potentially take religious conformity and obedience to unprecedented heights.
The Church realized too late, however, that the invention it had thought to be a means of obtaining unprecedented power and control – would actually irreparably undermine its strength and pave the way for the Reformation and the European Renaissance.
Although Gutenberg didn’t invent many of the things for which he is generally given credit, there is no disputing that he gave us the ability to quickly and consistently create fonts of type. Gutenberg took the tools of his time, and refined, combined and perfected them into an efficient system for producing graphic content. His work enabled us to communicate in a manner that is exceptionally utilitarian, supremely elegant, and available to anyone capable of making a modest financial investment
Note about the Gutenberg image: Most representations of Gutenberg derive from the 1584 engraving shown at the beginning of this module. In it, he is pictured as an elderly man in a fur cap, with forked beard, and vacant expression. The latter is perhaps due to the uselessness, for typographical purposes, of the die he holds in his left hand. This depiction is a work of fancy, if only because Gutenberg, as a patrician and a member of the archiepiscopal household, would have been clean-shaven.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.