Innovation of movable type

Johannes Gutenberg: 15th century printing with type.
  • 1452, Gutenberg conceives of the idea for movable type. The first to invent an effective casting of type and thus making an industry and change in European civilization.

  • Gutenberg's major contribution to printing came while he was working as a goldsmith, back in Mainz.

  • He knew if he could produce indulgences quickly and by the hundreds he could pay off some of his debts from his trinket selling days.

  • So he created metal molds for letters, which were then filled with a molten lead alloy.

  • The cast letters were uniform in size so that they could be aligned easily on a frame, and once assembled in proper order, the frame holding the letters was then pressed against parchment or vellum.

  • The result was an exactly repeatable, error-free piece of "writing." Gutenberg may have printed thousands of indulgences (whose abuse by the Catholic Church annoyed a certain Martin Luther).

The earliest known portrait of Gutenberg,
engraving on copper,

Letters of indulgence,
Block print, (1454) (

  • Earliest dated moveable type specimen

  • An indulgence could be purchased as a sort of "coupon" by sinners as credit against time to be spent in Purgatory.

  • The written additions in this copy indicate that on the last day of December 1454, one Judocus Ott von Apspach was pardoned of his sins.




These early-19th-century engravings illustrate Gutenberg’s system for casting type.

    A. Punch

    B. Matrix

    C. Type mold (with matrix removed to show a newly cast H)

    D. & E. Type mold (opened so that the newly cast H can be removed.)

    A steel punch (A) is used to stamp an impression of the letterform into a softer brass matrix (B). After the matrix (B) is slipped into the bottom of the two-part type mold (C), the mold (D & E) is filled with the molten lead alloy to cast a piece of type. After the lead alloy cools, the type mold (D & E)is opened and the type is removed.




  • Gutenberg himself did not actually invent the printing press.  
  • His true innovation is the mechanism that allowed individual letters to be interchanged,
  • This shaved weeks off the pre-printing process itself and reducing the price of and luxury of the book.  
  • He also created an instrument for hand-pouring that allowed the printer to create any number of individual letters out of a unique mixture of alloy, the Gutenberg Printing Press soon became the standard across Europe.  
  • The medieval Catholic Church became Gutenberg's largest patron after he established himself without the later support of an investor Fust, in 1455.
  • Other documents printed on Gutenberg's press were flyers, calendars, letters, and general works of Latin literature. This close relationship with the Church also had an ironic turn--Mainz was the city where the first censorship edict was decreed in Germany.


(Click here for actual type used by Gutenberg)

In Gutenberg's workshop, he brought together the following technologies to print books.

    • paper
    • oil-based ink
    • & the wine-press
  • As a metal smith, Gutenberg knew the write metals to use, soft enough to cast, but hard enough to hold up for thousands of impressions.
  • Unique metal mixture: A unique alloy of 80% lead, 5 % tin, and 15% antimony

another description of Gutenberg's type system


42 line Bible

A single page from Gutenberg's 42 line Bible, (1450-55)

2 pages from Gutenberg's 42 line Bible, (1450-55)

websites on Gutenberg

site01 | site02

  • The world’s first book printed by movable type.

  • Gutenberg’s name does not appear on any of his work, but he is generally accredited with The 42 line Bible

  • Named for the # of lines that were in each column from its double-column pages

  • also known as the Gutenberg Bible or the Mainz Bible (for the place where it was produced).

  • generous margins

    first printed book of quality

    In order to achieve his final result, Gutenberg cast 290 different type shapes. Each shape was an individual type component, such as a lower or upper case letter, a punctuation mark, or a symbol.


  • it took Gutenberg at least two years to complete his first book.
  • Had a staff of about 20

  • Finishing touches, including color of red and blue headers, intials and text were added by hand by an illuminator.

  • 42-line Bible was near completion by 1455
  • Published in 2 volumes, totaling over 1,200 pages, is one of the most beautiful of all printed books.

  • No one knows exactly how many copies of the Bible were printed, but the best guess is that around 180-145 on paper and a few more on the more luxurious and expensive vellum. (high quality parchment)

    (Forty-eight of these books have been preserved.)


Gutenberg's life timeline

Example of Gutenberg style press


Printing Advances

  • The art of printing was perfected by Gutenberg in Germany by 1450.
  • The first Italian press was set up by the partnership outside Rome by 1465
  • 4 years later a German named Johannes de Spira began printing in Venice.
  • Venice rapidly became the printing capital of the 15th century.
  • Huge immigrant population
  • a place where foreigners could thrive, all new settlers being promised protection and liberty.
  • Most of the early 'Venetian' printers were in fact immigrants,
  • including Nicolaus Jenson who was originally from France.