Gutenberg’s father was a minor royal and his mother came from a merchant family; they lived in Mainz, Germany. His father was in charge of running an ecclesiastical mint; they created coins. Growing up, Guttenberg was essentially a jeweler. Gutenberg’s father died in 1419, leaving an inheritance but also a problem. Guttenberg’s father was a royal, barring him from the trade guilds; he could not make jewery. However, his mother came from a common line so he was not a royal, making him ineligible to run a mint or anything similar to what his father had done.
Since it was impossible to hold a traditional job, Gutenberg left, moving to Strasbourg, to work on a new innovation. During the 1440s, Gutenberg envisioned a better way to produce books, using movable type. Before his innovation, the state-of-the-art was to carve pages in wooden blocks, each page one block. This was a time-intensive process that required extensive refinishing to clean up the text. The few books produced were extremely expensive.
School teachers and University professors would read books aloud to students, explaining the material as they went along, while students took notes. Individual books were not available to students due to the high cost.
To lower the cost of printing, and books, Gutenberg invented movable individual letters. Arranged into a block these were then pressed onto a page, the printing press.
Gutenberg used his entire, sizable inheritance creating his press and, more importantly, the supporting infrastructure. He built a foundry and hired workers to make the individual pieces of metal type that were flat and consistent enough they could be arranged into a sheet for printing. Special paper and inks were created that could withstand the high pressure were developed. Finally, the press itself needed to be a more consistent overall pressure than presses meant grapes or other foods, where the press was meant to destroy whatever was being pressed.
Gutenberg decided to match the look of books from the era, which were artisanal pieces, crafted with beautiful variably spaced typography and multiple fonts. He created three entirely different variable spaced fonts, including one that could print in a different color. The elegant fonts vastly increased the cost and complexity of both developing and using his printing press. Eventually, Gutenberg ran out of funds and borrowed money to continue development.
By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to Mainz and was printing calendars and indulgences. In 1452 he borrowed more money to fund a new project, printing bibles. Due to the complexity of typesetting, it took Gutenberg years to create a relatively small number of bibles. By 1455 his primary creditor, Fust, either tired of the project or wanted what today would be called a liquidity event and sued Gutenberg for a debt that was by then about 20,000 guilders. Gutenberg lost, and his equipment, including his press and typefaces, were taken.
Despite Gutenberg’s loss, other printers saw his methods and rapidly copied using lower-cost, lower-quality equipment. They realized the multiple typefaces added enormous cost. For example, they could produce fonts for more than three entirely separate presses for the price Gutenberg’s fonts cost for one press. These good enough quality presses are what soon produced mass-market books. Gutenberg never meaningfully profited from his press though he was eventually given a small church pension. Gutenberg died poor. The location of the grave, of the greatest inventor in history, is unknown.
Gutenberg’s press vastly expanded access to printed material ushering in the reformation and the modern era. His press, along with the wheel and fire, is widely regarded as one of the three most important inventions in history.