A massive effort was put into the hand-copying of texts in the Middle Ages, in monasteries and, later, secular scriptoria as well, but it was a laborious and expensive operation, and each time a text was copied there was a fresh chance of error. No two copies were exactly alike. Printing as a means of making many identical copies arose in the late Middle Ages. Playing cards were printed from wood-blocks in which the areas to appear white were cut away, leaving the inkbearing portions standing out in relief. Pictures with captions were printed from these wood-blocks, the earliest surviving examples being of the Virgin with four saints of 1418 and the St Christopher of 1423, in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. From around 1430 sheets such as these were collected and bound into books, known as block-books or xylographica. For around half a century block-books, produced mainly in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands went some way towards satisfying a demand for multiple identical copies. But the number of copies that could be printed from a block of wood was limited and, far more serious, when the print run was finished, the wood blocks had to be discarded and fresh blocks made for a different text. The invention of printing from movable type was immeasurably superior and led to the early demise of the block-book. Here, the text is assembled from individual type, one for each character. After printing off, the type is distributed ready for use in a fresh work. Movable type was in use in Korea in the thirteenth century and in Turkey some time later, but there is no evidence that its use influenced Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg of Mainz, who is generally accepted as the inventor in Europe of printing with movable type around 1450—an invention that has exerted a more profound and widespread influence on mankind than any other. All useful inventions have been conceived to satisfy a blatant, or latent, need. With printing, a number of factors converged around the mid-fifteenth century to make it highly likely that someone would invent it. Literacy, confined to the clerics in the early Middle Ages, had by then spread to the laity. The development of education, cultural traditions and prosperity led not only to a desire for literature of all kinds but, in the case of the richer classes, to a taste for collecting fine manuscripts. A brisk trade grew up to satisfy this demand and a way was sought to widen the trade by multiplying texts.
While vellum was the only available medium, printing would have been too expensive and the supply was hardly adequate for large-scale work. Fortunately the textile industries of Western Europe were booming, producing a plentiful supply of waste rag, an admirable material from which to make paper. This made it sensible to look for a way to make multiple copies. Gutenberg appears to have begun his search while a political exile in Strasburg towards 1440. He returned to Mainz between 1444 and 1448 and two years later had perfected his invention to the point of commercial exploitation. In this he was none too successful, for financial difficulties led to foreclosure on his equipment in 1455 and it passed to Peter Schöffer, the son-in-law of the lawyer who had lent Gutenberg the money to set up his business. One book only can be confidently attributed to Gutenberg’s workshop—the great 42-line Bible, begun in 1452 and published before August 1456—the first book to be printed from movable type and a magnificent piece of printing by any later standards.
Gutenberg’s achievement lay in the successful combination of existing techniques rather than the devising of new ones—not the last such case in the history of technology. Of these various components, paper has already been mentioned. The others were the press, the type and the ink. The wooden press, with variations in detail, had long been used for wine pressing, in bookbinding and for other purposes, and was only slightly modified for printing. For ink, Gutenberg substituted an oil-based one for the water-based inks of the scribes; it was taken over from the material devised for painting by the Van Eycks. The type was formed by metal-casting techniques which were well established, although the design of mould, of variable size to suit the different sizes of the characters, was ingenious. However, Gutenberg’s contribution in respect of the composition of type metal should not be overlooked. He seems to have spent years searching for an alloy with certain properties, such as low melting point for convenience of casting yet strength enough to resist the wear of thousands of impressions. No existing alloy possessed the required combination of properties and the type metal arrived at by Gutenberg, doubtless after much trial and error, appears to have consisted mainly of lead and tin with some antimony. Gutenburg thereby achieved a remarkable technological, if not commercial, success, for the earliest products do not show the usual signs of primitive, halting work but are fine examples, equalled later but hardly surpassed. Also, the fact that the equipment and the process survived virtually unchanged except for minor details for three and a half centuries cannot be entirely due to printers’ conservatism. It is a striking testimonial to the soundness of Gutenberg’s invention.