Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond


Was Gutenberg really the first to invent printing?
Most people associate the invention of printing with one man: Johannes Gutenberg. But was he really the first to invent printing?

Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz in Germany introduced printing with the printing press to Europe in 1439. His invention of movable type started the Printing Revolution. The significance of the movable type is often compared to the invention of the Internet as it introduced an era of mass-communication. The use of movable type was a marked improvement over the handwritten manuscript, which had been the method of book production prior to Gutenberg.
Around 1450, the printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe and later the world. The famous Gutenberg Bible (also 42-line Bible) was the first printed version of the Bible.

The Gutenberg Bible
In 1452, Gutenberg and his business partner Johannes Fust started their printing business. The same year, they printed a 1300-paged bible, today referred to as Gutenberg Bible.
Estimates say that they printed about 180 copies in total, of which about 60 were printed on vellum. Each page of the bible contains 42 lines of text in Gothic type in two columns.
Today, 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive, four of them on vellum.
Additionally, many fragments and single leaves of the book survived.

Learn more about the Gutenberg Bible and check out the digitized Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.

So, Gutenberg did invent the printed book!?
Yes, and no. Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type and our Euro-centric focus often presents him as the creator of the first printed book.

Other cultures, such as China and Korea, printed books using the woodblock method centuries before Gutenberg.
Korean Choe Yun-ui had even invented movable type. 150 prior to Gutenberg (no early copies have survived).
Both, Gutenberg's and Yun-ui's, printing enterprises involved placing metal letters in a frame, inking them, and then pressing them to a surface. But Gutenberg’s method was more even, reliable, and fast, and thus spread widely, while Yun-ui's did not.

Header Image: Detail from: Jan Collaert, after Jan van der Straet, “Impressio Librorvm” from Nova Reperta Philips Galle: Antwerp, ca. 1600. (plate 4) Metropolitan Museum of Art, 34.30(5) 

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