Johannes Gutenbergs Movable Type

Feature, Middle Ages

Learning, Previously the Prerogative of the Few, Sweeps the World

Without readily available books, newspapers, magazines, few people would bother, or be able, to read. Education as we know it would be unthinkable; the world would revert in a few years to a condition much as it was in the fourteenth century: there would be privileged, educated elite able to buy or borrow the few works available in manuscript; for the rest, education would be information, picked up by ear. The hundreds of copies of plans, blueprints, for building an airplane, a motorcar, an office block, a scooter, these would not be available.

Only poets, whose language is memorable, spoken prose, only poets would flourish.

But of course, this is nonsense. If printing were forgotten, if every man and woman connected with the art, every girl behind the typewriter, were to be struck blank by loss of memory, someone would invent it all over again, and quickly. A world like ours cannot exist without print.

One of the few firm facts we have concerning the origins of printing is the name of the man who didn’t invent it. His name, an important one, as we shall see, was Johannes Gutenberg: he lived in the fifteenth century, in Germany.

Printing, the transferring of an image by impression, is one of the most ancient of man’s skills. The earliest printed book in our possession was produced in China eleven hundred years ago. It was found in a cave in Tunhuang at the start of this century, it takes the form of a scroll sixteen feet long and a foot wide and it bears the Chinese equivalent of our date, 16 May, 868. But even this is not the first example: Buddhist charms were printed in Japan and Korea a hundred years before.

So advanced was Oriental printing that in A.D. 932 the Chinese began printing an edition of the classics, and completed it one hundred and thirty volumes and twenty-one years later. Their process of “block printing” is one we use for reproducing pictures; the whole page is carved (nowadays by acid, in those days with a knife) out of one piece of wood or metal. The Chinese language being non-alphabetic, comprising thousands of individual characters representing separate ideas is poorly suited to modern movable type, with its individual letters assembled into a block; and yet even this revolutionary development took place in the eleventh century. The philosopher Pi-Cheng introduced movable type, urged its general acceptance, and his invention died with him.

A revolving table typecase with individual movable type characters arranged primarily by rhyming scheme, from Wang Zhen’s book of agriculture published in 1313

A revolving table typecase with individual movable type characters arranged primarily by rhyming scheme, from Wang Zhen’s book of agriculture published in 1313

It was not until Marco Polo and other travellers had returned from exploring the East that the art of printing became known in Europe, and it was not until the fifteenth century, and Gutenberg, that books were produced by the method. There was a sudden revival of interest, and three methods were tried: the Chinese one, with hand-carved wooden blocks, one per page; a system of movable type, redeveloped from Pi-Cheng’s discarded method by Lawrens Coster of Haarlem; and a third, also using movable type, but far more efficiently, developed by Johannes Gutenberg.

Block printing came first, and various seals and documents were made by the process. The printer took his flat piece of wood, a piece slightly bigger than the area he intended to cover with print, and inked each letter carefully on it, in reverse; then he cut away the wood from every un-inked part of the wooden surface and was left with his printing block. The process took time but a practically infinite number of books could be printed from the same blocks. Indeed, one of the disadvantages of the method was that the expensively carved block lasted longer than the demand for the book. Few people could read, and the edition was limited to a few copies; after these had been run off, the block could only be used for lighting the fire.

The answer was movable type. “With only a score or so of letters in a European alphabet, it would be simple to cut a number of copies of each from separate blocks. They could then be assembled into the words and sentences of a page, clamped together and printed. When the required number of pages had been printed, the little blocks could be taken apart and used again. The idea appealed to Lawrens Coster, and he cut his separate letters; whether he then went on to make a mould of each and cast a large number of replicas we do not know. Gutenberg did, and as he produced a better product, more aesthetically pleasing, more legible, than Coster, his name has gone into history as the first European to use movable type. With Gutenberg’s work, printing as we know it began.

He was born in Mainz, Germany, about 1398, but for some reason was banished from the town at the age of thirty. He moved to Strasbourg where he developed his first printing press, a practical application of an idea he had been working on since childhood. The press allowed him to stamp out page after page with great speed and he printed with an unprecedented beauty and clarity. We do not know whether the blurred, unattractive work claimed for Coster was in fact done by him, whether he was really a printer or just a man who made type, but we have many examples of the beautiful work done by Gutenberg.

At the end of 1444 he returned to Mainz; presumably the cause of his banishment had been forgotten, though he had seized the opportunity during a visit of the town clerk of Mainz to Strasbourg to have the unfortunate man flung into gaol ‘for debt”. The Mayor of Strasbourg, profoundly shocked at this discourtesy to a visiting dignitary, had him released, threatened to have Gutenberg incarcerated in his place. Quite possibly this high-handed action set off events which made him only too anxious to leave Strasbourg.

In Mainz, he entered into partnership with a rich goldsmith called Fust, a trusting man who spent a great deal of money over the years on Gutenberg’s ideas, for no return. The partnership finally dissolved and Fust brought an action to recover his money.

Gutenberg was now working on his famous “42-line Bible”, but just as he was completing the blocks his press was handed over as reparation to Fust. The latter promptly went into partnership with Gutenberg’s assistant, Peter Schoeffer, and published the great Bible in 1456. Gutenberg has rightly gone into history as the printer of this masterpiece, but he received nothing for his labours.

He disappeared for a year and probably made another Bible in Bamberg before reappearing in Mainz in 1460 with another beautifully produced work, Catholicon. Those books, quite apart from their immense historical value, are works of art: in 1954 a copy of the first Bible changed hands for £71,400, while a year later one page, all that survived of another copy, was sold for £130. Gutenberg, however, ended his days in comparative poverty with a small pension granted by the Archbishop of Mainz. He watched in disgust as Fust and Schoeffer carried his invention from success to success. By the time he died in 1468, printing, based on his developments, had been established in Italy and Switzerland and would spread in the next twenty years to most of Europe.

Like Gutenberg, the early printers cast their own type, but printing houses soon decided to specialize in the business of printing, leaving others to make type for them in separate foundries. The trade of type-founder was an honoured one from the end of the sixteenth century to the start of the twentieth, when developments in printing and metallurgy made it often more convenient to cast type mechanically by means of a type-casting machine. After use the type was melted down again.

For three hundred years after Gutenberg the main progress in the art of printing was the development of new type designs. Presses began to be made of iron, not wood; to be used in batteries; but the most laborious aspect of the craft, the picking up of each letter singly and assembling, “composing”, it with others in a composing stick which was then clamped with its fellows to form a page; this was still done by hand. Attempts were made to develop machines which would compose, but they all suffered from two major disabilities: they could assemble the type in the right order, group the letters into words, but they were unable to ‘justify” the lines to fill the width of the page; and they were unable either to return the matrices from which the type was made to the containers from which they had come. Little effort was saved.

It was not until 1886 and the appearance of the first commercial “Linotype” that these problems were solved. The machine, as its name implies, cast a whole line of type in one piece, “justified” it automatically, and then returned the matrices to the magazine for further use. It was worked by a keyboard, like a typewriter. It had several disadvantages of its own: the size and design of letters were restricted by that of the machine, and a solid line of type was felt by purists to be less clear in impression than one made up of separate characters. The “Monotype” machine solved the second of these problems by casting each letter separately, but it, too, was restricted in type design. It was followed by other machines like the “Intertype” and the “Typograph”. Nowadays the Linotype and Monotype machines are used extensively, the former for magazines and newspapers, the latter for books, though in the United States the improved Linotype has pride of place for almost everything.

The hand compositor, though much of his work has been taken from him, is a man of importance. He may not be able to compete when a large quantity of letterpress is to be set in one size of type, but he has the advantage over a machine when several sizes are being used. Nowadays, with the advertising industry using an ever-increasing amount of “display printing”, there is far more of this work being done. The hand compositor is also responsible for title-pages, chapter-headings, arranging the machine-set type into columns and pages.

In England, printing arrived with William Caxton in 1476, twenty years after Gutenberg’s Bible. Caxton was born in about 1422, in Kent, and was apprenticed to a silk merchant: the man died when he was nineteen and he was sent to Bruges to finish his term.

When this was over he decided that there would be better opportunities of getting rich on the Continent than in England, and he settled there. Within a few years he had risen to the comparatively dizzy height of Commercial Adviser to a Duchess, and it was in 1472, during a business trip on her behalf to Cologne, that he began to study the art of printing. Two years later he resigned his post and set up as a printer in Bruges. After another two years he had printed his first book, his own translation of a French romance into English, which he followed by The Game and Playe of Chesse. His fame having travelled back to his native land, he decided to follow it.

The first book Caxton published in England was Lord Rivers’s The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophers, in 1477. Between this and the end of his life he published over eighty books, many of them being his own translations from the French. By 1481 he had produced a beautifully illustrated Myrrour of the World with his own woodcuts. His chief claim to fame rests on the fact that he brought literary masterpieces to all who could read and thereby preserved them for us. He printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales twice, and a number of other works which have survived and it was not until he had done so that the English language began to settle down to a uniform spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Printing, one of mankind’s greatest discoveries, has progressed a long way since the time of Gutenberg and Caxton. A certain amount of it is now done by photographic methods, printing a whole page from the equivalent of a photographic negative, and the next step forward is likely to be the abandonment of type altogether and the composition and printing of books entirely by photograph. But whatever developments take place, we can be sure that they will not have the sweeping significance of Gutenberg’s work in the fifteenth century.