Gutenberg and the history of the printing press
Johannes Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press in 1454. But neither printing nor movable type was actually invented by Johannes Gutenberg, nor did he print the first book. The Chinese actually printed from movable type in 1040, but later discarding the method.
Even before printing books from movable type, the Chinese used wooden blocks to print Budhist writings by hand on scrolls. Chinese writer Fenzhi mentioned in his writings Yuan Xian San Ji that woodblocks were used to print Buddhist scripture during the Zhenguan years (627-649 A.D.). The oldest known surviving woodblock-printed work is a Buddhist scripture of the Chinese Wu Zetian period (684-705 A.D.) discovered in 1906 in Tubofan in the Xinjiang province of China.
Printing is considered one of the four great inventions of China; the other being the compass, gunpowder and paper. While there are no surviving examples of the Chinese printing presses of the 11th Century, the oldest surving dated printed book on record is the Budhist Diamond-Sutra, dated 11 May 868 AD.
Park Gi Tae from VANK (Voluntary Agency Network of Korea) contributed as follows: The Jikjia buddhist doctrinal book called Jikjisimcheyojeol or “Jikji in short form is the oldest book made by metalloid type. It had been made in 1377, 78 years earlier than “the Bible in 48 lines” made by Gutenberg.
However, recent excavations at a Korean pagoda have unearthed a Buddhist woodblock text even older than the Daimond-Sutra. Known as “Mugu jeonggwang dae darani-gyeong” it is dated to 750-751 AD.
Practical printing experiments
Gutenberg was unaware of the Chinese and Korean printing methods.
In 1450, Gutenberg went into partnership with the wealthy Johann Fust and Peter Schffer. In 1454, Gutenberg printed a Turkish calendar and the famous 42-line Bible, of which he printed some 180 copies. The next year he quarrelled with his partners, they won a lawsuit against him, and he lost control of his printing business, causing him financial ruin.
After his financial ruin, little is known of Gutenberg. Near the end of his life, the elector Adolph von Nassau took pity and made him a member of his court. He died in Mainz in 1468.
Although Gutenberg did not invent printing, his experiments made printing more practical. He used sand molds to cast his type and changed the woodcut presses to take printing of type pages. He did invent movable type for the Western world. Gutenberg’s method of using type endured almost unchanged for five centuries. Today he is the most famous printer of all time.
Before Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1454, there were only about 30,000 books throughout the whole of Europe, nearly all Bibles or biblical commentary. By 1500, there were more than 9 million books. Today there are more than a trillion books.
The Gutenberg Bible
It is believed that about 180 copies were printed. Significant parts of 48 copies still survive. The British Library has two complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible and a small but important fragment of a third copy. One copy (shown) was transferred in 1829 to the British Library with the library of King George III (1738-1820).
Picture © British Library Board