Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > The Invention > Adapting Technology
The Invention  -  Books Before and After  -  Johann Gutenberg  -  Facts about the Book  -  Activities  -  Glossary  -  Teacher Resources


Adapting Technology

What did Gutenberg invent to print his first major book? Gutenberg, like all inventors, adapted known technology for new uses.

Gutenberg had to invent three things: individual pieces of type, a printing press, and ink that would stick to the type.

Early screw press, American Handbook of Printing, 1913
In the centuries following Gutenberg, screw presses like the one in this illustration were used for printing.

Adapting a press

Using a press for printing was one of Gutenberg's most inspired ideas. We don't know exactly what kind of press Gutenberg used for printing. He grew up in a winemaking region of Germany and was probably familiar with wine presses used to extract the juice from grapes. He may also have been familiar with linen, olive, and paper presses of the time. Gutenberg needed a machine that would apply even pressure to a slightly damp piece of paper or vellum laid on top of metal letters known as type. Both the machine and the type needed to stand up to heavy repeated use.

This is a modern recreation of Gutenberg's type.
© 2000 Dale Guild Type Foundry

Making type

The type Gutenberg made to use in the press consisted of individual metal letters and punctuation symbols, now called movable type. This invention allowed individual letters and punctuation symbols to be used and re-used to print the words and sentences on individual pages. Each page could be printed in the press as many times as needed for the edition.

Experience with metal and ink

Gutenberg had experience working with metal. He had manufactured metal mirrors to sell to people going on pilgrimages. Travelers believed the mirrors could capture the image of the holy site.

Goldsmiths were experienced metal engravers. We do not know whether Gutenberg was a goldsmith, but we do know that he was associated with the guild of goldsmiths, painters, and saddlers. Craftsmen such as painters may have helped Gutenberg with his ink composition.

Enlargement of printed words from Bible.

Standard of quality

Water-based ink was used in the medieval period. Gutenberg needed a different solution, a thick, tacky ink that would adhere to the metal type and not run off.

Using special scientific tests on Gutenberg's ink, scholars have determined the elements present. The glossy black ink contains high quantities of copper, lead, and sulfur. This high metal content is unusual when compared to the ink of other early printers, but it is similar to compounds used by oil painters of this period.

The uniform blackness of Gutenberg's ink impression is still considered a standard of quality.

Illustration from a 15th-century German block book, Ars bene moriendi.
Each page of this block book was carved from a separate piece of wood.

Woodblock prints

Gutenberg was probably very familiar with a process called woodblock printing. The process was simple. An artist would carve a mirror image of a design or text on wood. The wood block would be inked, and the image would be pressed by hand onto paper. The procedure could be repeated to make multiple copies.

Woodblock printing originated in the sixth century in China and Japan and was mainly used for printing religious pictures. In the west, this technique was commonly used to make playing cards.

The Chinese later developed one-character blocks that could be arranged together to print a page and then separated to make different pages. These blocks were the first examples of movable type.

Johann Gutenberg took this process further by developing a printing press that used metal movable type, making the printing process faster and more efficient.

Next Topic: Papermaking