Records are scant but Guternberg likely began printing in Strasbourg (1430-44), seeking to reproduce the religious manuscripts of the day. He constructed a printing press in 1448 with the financial backing of Johann Fust. Around 1455 he printed a 42-line Bible, which historians call the “Gutenberg Bible,” a word respected for its aesthetic charm.
The Chinese had been block-printing with stamps and seals since the Shang dynasty (BCE 1766 – 1122) but the innovation of movable type sparked a technological revolution that continues into the 21st century. The impact of movable type on literacy – and society in general – is much discussed in contemporary sociology and cultural studies courses.
What you probably don’t hear in these courses, however, is that we’re not really sure if Gutenberg was the inventor of movable type. The uncertainty arose when researchers realized subtle differences between some characters within different printed copies of the same work.
Elaborate computer scans have apparently confirmed that these differences indicate that Gutenberg did not use one indestructible mould but, rather, had to employ some other method to mass produce copies of a single work. And this exact method is still subject to debate.
The following except from Wikipedia explains:
The invention of the making of types with punch, matrix and mold has been widely attributed to Gutenberg. However, recent evidence suggests that Gutenberg’s process was somewhat different. If he used the punch and matrix approach, all his letters should have been nearly identical, with some variations due to miscasting and inking. However, the type used in Gutenberg’s earliest work shows other variations.
In 2001, the physicist Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Princeton librarian Paul Needham, used digital scans of a Papal bull in the Scheide Library, Princeton, to carefully compare the same letters (types) appearing in different parts of the printed text. The irregularities in Gutenberg’s type, particularly in simple characters such as the hyphen, suggested that the variations could not have come from either ink smear or from wear and damage on the pieces of metal on the types themselves. While some identical types are clearly used on other pages, other variations, subjected to detailed image analysis, suggested that they could not have been produced from the same matrix. Transmitted light pictures of the page also appeared to reveal substructures in the type that could not arise from traditional punchcutting techniques. They hypothesized that the method may have involved impressing simple shapes to create alphabets in “cuneiform” style in a matrix made of some soft material, perhaps sand. Casting the type would destroy the mould, and the matrix would need to be recreated to make each additional sort. This could explain the variations in the type, as well as the substructures observed in the printed images.
Thus, they feel that “the decisive factor for the birth of typography”, the use of reusable moulds for casting type, might have been a more progressive process than was previously thought. They suggest that the additional step of using the punch to create a mould that could be reused many times was not taken until twenty years later, in the 1470s. Others have not accepted some or all of their suggestions, and have interpreted the evidence in other ways, and the truth of the matter remains very uncertain. †
- The Printed Word (djcadchina.wordpress.com)
- Museum of Printing History: A Field Report (webagent99.com)
- Gutenberg the Geek, reviewed (buzzmachine.com)
- Where Gutenberg worked (buzzmachine.com)
- From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg (thehindu.com)