Around 1450 a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany named Johannes Gutenberg borrowed money to invent a technology that changed the world of printing. This invention, the world’s first movable type printing press, came to be known as the Gutenberg Printing Press. It created a revolution in the production of books and democratized knowledge in the sciences, arts, and religion through the transmission of texts. This invention remained the standard for printing presses until the 20th century.
The Gutenberg Printing Press was used to print the world’s first book using movable type: the 42-line per page Gutenberg Bible. This elegant, two-volume Latin Bible was one of the earliest works made using movable metallic type, a system of individual letters and character pieces that could be rearranged and reused during printing. Its popularity signaled a global revolution for the written word. Books previously had to be laboriously copied by hand. Yet only a half-century after the Gutenberg Bible became the world’s first printed bestseller, millions of different volumes were flying off presses across Europe.
The Gutenberg Printing Press was a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of movable handset block letters held within a wooden form. The form was then pressed against a sheet of paper. Before this invention books were either copied by hand or printed from engraved wooden blocks, processes that could take months or years to complete.
In Gutenberg’s time, inks used by scribes to produce manuscripts were water-based. Gutenberg developed an oil-based ink that would better adhere to his metal type. His ink was primarily carbon, but also had a high metallic content, with copper, lead, and titanium predominating. Dr Kristian Jensen, Head of collections at the British Library, explains: “if you look (at the pages of The Gutenberg Bible) closely you will see this is a very shiny surface. When you write you use a water based ink, you put your pen into it and it runs off. Now if you print that’s exactly what you don’t want. One of Gutenberg’s inventions was an ink which wasn’t ink, it’s a varnish. So what we call printer’s ink is actually a varnish, and that means it sticks to its surface.”
The first part of the Gutenberg Printing Press idea was using a single, hand-carved character to create identical copies of itself. Cutting a single letter could take a craftsman a day of work. A single page taking 2500 letters made this way was impractical. A less labour-intensive method of reproduction was needed. Gutenberg figured out how to mold a rectangular block of metal with the form of the desired character protruding from the end. This piece of type could be put in a line, facing up, with other pieces of type. These lines were arranged to form blocks of text, which could be inked and pressed against paper, transferring the desired text to the paper.
The Gutenberg Bible is printed in the blackletter type style. The font has straight vertical strokes combined with horizontal lines, giving the impression of a woven structure. A fine typographer, Gutenberg set the type “justified” with “hanging punctuation.” For more information, contact Roger Black at TYPE magazine or Frank Romano at the Museum of Printing.
Rubrication and illumination:
Initially the rubrics — the headings before each book of the Bible — were printed, but this practice was quickly abandoned because of alignment issues. Gaps were left for rubriation to be added by hand. Spacious margins also allowed illuminated decoration to be added by hand. The amount of decoration depended on how much each buyer could or would pay. Some copies were never decorated.
The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978, when a copy went for a cool $2.2 million. Experts now estimate a complete copy could fetch upwards of $35 million at auction.
Fast forward about 568 years:
The Museum of Printing in Beverly, Massachusetts commissioned us to create a Gutenberg Printing Press pop-up card. This is our most ambitious card to date, both for its size, 8″ x 8″ and the combination of collage, folding, digital printing and 3-D wood grain design. The cover shows Johannes Gutenberg as we imagine him: prosperous, with a long beard, wearing a velvet robe trimmed in fur. Open the card to see Gutenberg standing beside his wooden press, knee-deep in Bibles. On the left inside page is a laser cut representation of a monk’s calligraphic illumination. On the inside right page is a digital print of an illuminated page of the Gutenberg Bible. Thank you Frank Romano and Laurie Hartman and Ted Leigh for the opportunity to collaborate on this design, and for your patience through 9 prototypes.
This is a card for printers, writers, historians, scholars, Bible studies, museums, collectors, Germans, typographers, inventors, for all and any occasions.
Messages for Printers:
Mind your P’s & Q’s.
You’re out of sorts today.
Happy Birthday, hot off the press.
You have done it, you have produced a line o’ type.
That’s a stereotype.
You made an impression on me.
We’ve been type cast.
What gunpowder did for war the printing press has done for the mind. ~Wendell Phillips
Ink is the blood of the printing-press. ~John Milton
Printing is the preservative of all arts. ~Isaiah Thomas
Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing. ~Benjamin Disraeli
We can put television in its proper light by supposing that Gutenberg’s great invention had been directed at printing only comic books. ~Robert M. Hutchins
The Protestant Reformation had a lot to do with the printing press, where Martin Luther’s theses were reproduced about 250,000 times, and so you had widespread dissemination of ideas that hadn’t circulated in the mainstream before. ~Nate Silver
~Future pope Pius II in a letter to Cardinal Carvajal, March 1455