Johannes Gutenberg

Picture postcard: Johannes Gutenberg
Picture postcard with what is said to be the oldest picture of Johannes Gutenberg, Mainz 1900
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig
um 1400-1468

Johannes Gutenberg

An inventor with many faces

Only a small number of people have influenced human history as much as Johannes Gutenberg (…) The name “Gutenberg” stands for the spread of knowledge and insight that influences modern man and his world view.

Jens Beutel, Von Mainz in die Welt. Gutenberg in Mainz, 2000

As the inventor of the technique of printing with moveable type, Johannes Gutenberg is a global historical figure of immense importance but, at the same time, a person about whom little is known. There are only a small number of sources that provide us with information on his life. He was born around 1400, as the son of the aristocratic Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg family in Mainz. He is said to have attended university in Erfurt. From 1434-1444 Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg. He made a living producing pilgrim’s mirrors and by monetising his knowledge of “innovative technologies”. He most likely also undertook his first experiments in type printing during this period. Returning to Mainz in 1450, he started a business relationship with Johannes Fust, who provided the finances required to start the secretive “werck der bucher” company. After a protracted series of legal disputes the pair went their separate ways, founding individual printing plants in 1455.

Gutenberg’s name is not mentioned in any of his printed works but, thanks to the body of research conducted into his life, we know today that he was responsible for the publication of calendars, letters of indulgences, the “Catholicon” and “Donate” school grammar readers and a range of other, smaller printed publications. This is in addition to his major printed achievement, the 42-line Gutenberg Bible. There are no real images of him in existence but his memory has been preserved in vast numbers of artistic representations.