Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, who invented the mechanical movable type printing in the fifteenth century, is said to be one of the most important persons, if not the most important person of the modern period due to the “Printing Revolution” that he started with his invention. Gutenberg was the first European to use movable type printing, in around 1439. Among his many contribut
ions to printing are: the invention of a process for mass-producing movable type; the use of oil-based ink; and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of the period. His truly epochal invention was the combination of these elements into a practical system which allowed the mass
production ofprinted books and was economically viable for printers and readers alike. Gutenberg’s method for making type is traditionallyconsidered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type.
Gutenberg’s early printing process, and what tests he may have made with movable type, are not known in great detail. His later Bibles were printed in such a way as to have required large quantities of type, some estimates suggesting as many as 100,000 individual sorts.Setting each page would take, perhaps, half a day, and considering all the work in loading the press, inking the type, pulling the impressions, hanging up the sheets, distributing the type, etc., it is thought that the Gutenberg–Fust shop might have employed as many as 25 craftsmen.
Gutenberg’s technique of making movable type remains unclear. In the following decades, punches and copper matrices became standardized in the rapidly disseminating printing presses across Europe. Whether Gutenberg used this sophisticated technique or a somewhat primitive version has been the subject of considerable debate.
In the standard process of making type, a hard metal punch is hammered into a softer copper bar, creating a matrix. This is then placed into a hand-held mould and a piece of type, or “sort”, is cast by filling the mould with molten type-metal; this cools almost at once, and the resulting piece of type can be removed from the mould. The matrix can be reused to create hundreds, or thousands, of identical sorts so that the same character appearing anywhere within the book will appear very uniform, giving rise, over time, to the development of distinct styles of typefaces or fonts. After casting, the sorts are arranged into type-cases, and used to make up pages which are inked and printed, a procedure which can be repeated hundreds, or thousands, of times. The sorts can be reused in any combination, earning the process the name of “movable type”.