This day in 1455 is considered the date of the original publication of the Gutenberg Bible–Europe’s first mass-produced book. The printing of the Gutenberg Bible is one the most important advances in world history. Prior to 1455, books were primarily the possessions of the wealthy and powerful, their text expensively copied by hand, but with the invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, books and the information they contained would soon be accessible to a much wider population.
Gutenberg was a well-connected and politically-minded craftsman born in Mainz, a German city on the Rhine. After a period spent in exile in Strasbourg, Gutenberg returned to the city of his birth and set to work–borrowing considerable sums of money in 1448. By mid-century, Gutenberg had invented and built his printing press, unique especially for its use of movable type.
The Chinese had invented a printing method involving engraved blocks to produce books as early as the 9th century, but the process was arduous and the result often poor. Gutenberg’s wooden press, borrowing elements from the local Rhineland winepresses, and involving movable individual characters of type made of metal alloy, could quickly produce multiple texts at a high standard of quality. The result was nothing less than revolutionary.
The process invented by Gutenberg was so technically innovative that it remained relatively unchanged for four more centuries. His printing process spread swiftly across Europe, many presses almost identical to his, and with it came a remarkable surge in learning. Gutenberg died in 1468. His invention and the resulting democratization of knowledge is considered by historians to have been critical to the Renaissance and led to the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation.
It is not known how many copies of the Bible were printed–estimates suggest approximately 150 to 180. Today, 48 copies in a variety of states are in existence. Complete vellum copies may be found in Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale, London’s British Library, Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress and Göttingen State and University Library in Germany. Additional incomplete and paper copies are scattered across the world in educational institutions and private collections.
Photo Credit: © North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy
Photo Caption: Prior to the printing press, only the wealthy owned books. The publication of the Gutenberg Bible tippled the scales of the social order.