Gutenberg dethroned?

Johann Gutenberg, the 15th-century German craftsman, has long been believed to be the father of modern typography. But the secretive inventor may have to share some of the paternity now. At Princeton, a physicist has joined a scholar of rare books to use new technology to examine some of Gutenberg’s texts. They claim that he may not have created the key process after all, a finding which could rewrite the history of printing.

The two scholars contend that someone else probably invented the metal mould method of printing attributed to Gutenberg, about 20 years after he printed his Bible. The method, which involves punching a letter into a copper matrix filled with lead alloy to create hundreds of identical letters, was the principal way of printing until after World War II.

According to Prof. Anthony Grafton of Princeton University it would appear that the invention of modern printing was a more gradual process involving more than one person. The finding means that Gutenberg was not the inventor of movable type in the way it is commonly understood: as bits of identical type that are created from metal moulds. The new research, however, does not dislodge Gutenberg from his historic position as the inventor of the printing press in the West, and the first person to mass-produce Bibles and other materials.

The discovery was announced last month to an audience of some 250 scholars and rare-book collectors at New York’s Grolier Club by Paul Needham, the librarian of the Scheide Library, a private library housed at Princeton, and Blaise AgŁera y Arcas, a 25-year-old physics graduate of Princeton University. The two researchers used computer enhancement to magnify the typeface of the Calixtus Bull of 1456, a letter from the Vatican printed by Gutenberg which sought to raise money to fight the Turks. They also applied the same technique to two Bibles printed in Gutenberg types which are at the Scheide Library. Mr. AgŁera y Arcas then created mathematical models to compare the letters.

The scholars said they discovered that individual letters differed in shape from one another in such a way that they could not have come from the same metal mould. For example, the ‘A’s, ‘B’s and so forth on any given page on Gutenberg’s papal bull are not always exactly the same shape. Needham and AgŁera y Arcas say they believe that Gutenberg employed a cruder printing method, sand casting, used at the time for making metal objects. The two scholars suspect Gutenberg made his moulds in sand, then poured lead alloy into them to create letters. Because sand moulds could not be reused, Gutenberg would have had to make his moulds over and over again, and each letter would thus have been slightly different.

Prof. Grafton explained that ‘the letters were movable, in the sense that they were individual and were fitted into forms, but not in the normally used sense of being hard, identical or virtually identical objects created uniformly and used uniformly.’ Gutenberg had always been thought to print using whole letters. But the two scholars were also startled to discover that Gutenberg probably used a more complex method of creating shapes in the sand with tools and joining the different shapes together to make letters.

Needham and AgŁera y Arcas plan to publish their findings in a scholarly journal and in a monograph. Once experts have a chance to study their results, there are bound to be dissenters. Nonetheless, G. Thomas Tanselle, a leading bibliographical scholar who was in the audience at the Grolier Club, called the announcement ‘a landmark in the study of early typography’. Peter E. Hanff, the deputy director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley remarked ‘It’s opening a window on something we thought we understood. It reveals to us that the invention of printing was far more complex than we thought. It is an astonishing discovery so many years after the fact’.

Until now, almost every historical account of Gutenberg credits him with inventing the metal mould method for printing. Gutenberg, who was born in Mainz, Germany, around 1400, began his career as a metal worker. Because of political turmoil in Mainz, he moved to Strasbourg, then a German city. He began making mirrors that pilgrims could hold above their heads to get a better view of sacred relics in a crowd and perhaps, it was thought, catch some of the relic’s magic. Gutenberg may have used sand casting to create moulds for his mirrors. At the time, there was a demand among pilgrims for religious trinkets and papal indulgences so that multiple copies of documents had to be written out laboriously by hand.

The Koreans had been using sand casting to make metal letters and had already been mass-producing books for at least 30 years, but the scholars found no direct evidence that Gutenberg had contact with them. It has also long been known that the Chinese were making movable type out of clay and mass-producing books in the 11th century A.D., although that process was unknown in Europe.

To print his books, Gutenberg built a press modelled on the type used in winemaking, bookbinding and papermaking. He also developed an oil-based ink that is the prototype of modern printer’s ink. Around 1450 he began printing multiple copies of papal indulgences, a Latin grammar and a prophetic poem about the fate of the Holy Roman Empire. Gutenberg obtained additional financing to perfect his printing system and to produce a Latin Bible. The Bible, which is known as the Gutenberg Bible, was published around 1455, in an edition of about 180 copies. It is the oldest surviving printed book and is an astonishingly perfect piece of work - the gold standard of the ‘black art’. After half a millenium only about a quarter of the original copies remain in varying degrees of completeness. One copy is in the Scheide Library, together with another Bible believed to have been made by Albrecht Pfister using type supplied by Gutenberg. The library is owned by William Scheide, a philanthropist from a family which made a fortune in the oil business.

Needham concluded that it remains unknown how the modern punch matrix system came into being. He noted, however, that Italian documents from the 1470s refer explicitly to printing that uses metal moulds instead of sand.

Anglo American Press Gleanings from Neil Langdon Inglis,

selected ad compiled by Joan Wilson and Valerie Offord.


Meyers, Keith, The New York Times, January 2000.

McCue, Jim, History is rewritten, The Times, 7 March 2001.

For further information on the Gutenberg Bible there is an excellent British Library Site in the course of preparation by Kristian Jensen, Head of Incunabula:

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