Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg, it is thought, was born in the year 1400, other say in 1398, in Mainz; unfortunately there is no record of his birth or baptism. It is most likely that he would have been baptised because at that time Mainz was part of the Holy Roman Empire and his family were Catholic.
          Gutenberg’s father was a wealthy cloth merchant, it is also recorded that he was goldsmith to the bishop of Mainz. And so his son followed his father’s craft as goldsmith, is certainly where Johannes got his knowledge of metallurgy, which was to stand to him in later life.
          Goldsmith and engraver at that time went hand in hand, like a horse and carriage; this was the most prestigious job one could have. Between engraving on metal but mostly on wood there seemed to be endless opportunities and jobs.
          An engraver was a very skilled craftsman, when a block of wood came to be engraved for printing he first had to ensure that it was of an exact thickness all over. He had to polish it, both sides and dress it, ‘in size’ (thickness) so it would not be too thick for the printer. As you can imagine this was very time consuming and laborious. Then the prepared block was engraved with what ever the client wanted, some verse or image usually for the church that could be printed from over and over.
          Depending on the quality of the engraving, silk cloth or paper was rubbed onto the engraved block to make an image on the medium. By dampening the paper it could be pressed, in a printing press, onto the block to make a cleaner image. As an engraver Gutenberg I am sure was under continuous pressure particularly if he was ‘neat and clean’ at his job. I am sure he thought there has to be an easier way to reproduce images, other than from blocks of wood.
          The art of printing in 1380 was not new and neither was the printing press. The ideas had been imported to Europe from China and Persia (Baghdad, Iran today) adapting a fruit press or grape press, to press the paper onto the block to be copied. The Chinese had even toyed with movable type in 500B.C. (there is a record of movable type made from pottery clay in use about 3000B.C. in China) the different letters were made from pottery clay, pressed into uniform moulds but when fired some disintegrated and some when subject to the pressure of pressing the paper onto the type page also broke up. The other problem was that there was no consistency of the pottery clay so when fired some shrunk at different rates compounding the consistent height needed of type to get a clean print. Type height could not be guaranteed.
          Gutenberg had to improve the printing press to accommodate his idea of uniform type height. He also made a limiter, to limit the amount of pressure the printer could exert on the page of type, so not to crush it or deform it. All printing presses at that time had no limit as to the amount of pressure that could be exerted, there is a record of squashing the lead letters flat. But he is most famous for inventing the adjustable mould to cast the individual letters. So that after printing a pair of pages, the type used in the pages, could be distributed (dissed) back into the cases and reused.
          The black letter that Gutenberg used was modified from examples of handwriting of the time. All of the hand writing at the time was written using a quill and gall ink. The stroke of the quill down is always the widest part of any letter. The line perpendicular to that is thin. But quills were never held in that manner, the user held them at an angle, which was called the ‘accent’. Gutenberg adopted this style of type face because individual letters could be adapted to make as many letters as possible fit one setting of the casting mould. Instead of ‘circular’ shape b,d,o,p,q, as in the type face you are reading, the letters were squashed in, to facilitate the size of the mould. The mould was uniform in two planes, being able to ensure that the type height of every letter was exact, also uniform in depth being able to accommodate letter ascenders and descenders on the same body, the third plane was adjustable to accommodate wide and narrow letters ‘m’, ‘w’, and ‘i’, ‘l’.

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Above is a modern example of black letter font ‘Old English’ this is similar to what Gutenberg adapted and used, if you want to you could make a measurement of all the letters and decide which would necessitate a mould change in width. I would only change for l, m, w. If you look carefully you will see that the ‘x’ height of the design of the letter is large, therefore resulting is short ascenders and descenders.
          The next problem was to overcome the inevitable shrinkage that occurs with every metal that cools down to solid from molten. This is where his knowledge of metallurgy stood him in good stead. Gutenberg had experimented with different alloys of metal over the years and through trial and error eventually came to an alloy that gave a sharp cast of the letter and overcame the shrinkage. The alloy was made of a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony that alloy melted at the same low temperature as that of lead. Tin gave an even fluidity making for a sharper cast, the small percentage of antimony prevented shrinkage when cooling. Antimony possesses the same property as water it expands slightly on cooling. Egyptians are famous for cleaving great slabs of granite by using nothing more than wooden wedges and water. They would drive the wedge into a crack to widen it, then pore water into the crack and leave it over night to freeze, and continue in this fashion until the rock cleaved along its fault line.
          Metal founders from 1500 to resent times mixed their own printing type alloys but adopted the type height set by Gutenberg therefore fixing the bed to roller height of the modern letterpress printing machine. The standard he set in type height paved the way for all metal foundries to be able to make their own design of type faces available to printers who had no capacity to cast their own type. One of the oldest commercial type founders was Caslon 1739, Frys, Monotype, the company of Stephenson and Blake type founders (1818 - 2004) only closed in 2004 when the current Mr.Blake retired, after four generations of type casting.
          The next problem that Gutenberg encountered was the ink that was in use was mostly water based. Water and metal are not happy bed fellows, water based inks rolled off the metal type. His first attempt to resolve this problem was to use artists oil paint. But the pigment was not ground finely enough to give a good impression onto paper. The best indelible ink was made from the cocoon from the Gall Wasp after it lays its egg in the Oak tree but was water based. So once again Gutenberg set about improving the pigment quality and the way printing ink was made. He made different concoctions using a mix of soot and linseed oil, it’s recorded that he even tried butter as a carrier base. If you look at an old engraving of a print works you will notice a lad with what looks like a ball hanging from each hand. This is muslin cloth spread with the ink on the inside and gathered together into a ball, like the shape of a small Christmas pudding, his job was to dab the balls onto the type to ‘ink-up’ the image. This lad was called the ‘printers devil’ for obvious reasons, he was usually black with ink from head to toe.
          Printing at that time was a very dirty business, even in 1961 when I started to serve my time to be a compositor. I remember one of my first jobs before closing for the night was to wash out the ink ducts on the printing machines. The duct part was made from hardened steel as was the roller that it lay against, the edge of the duct itself was as sharp as a scalpel blade in order to trap, regrind and filter out large pieces of pigments in the ink. You could see the build up of large pigment pieces after a days printing. All inks were still made with pigments and were only suitable to letterpress printing and not offset. If you wanted to trace and see the difference in print quality from pigments to dyes, next time you see National Geographic magazines 1888-1940 colour pictures are printed using pigments, during 1950’s the change takes place, from 1960 onwards the quality of colour reproduction is improved month on month, to the present day ‘heat set litho’ (offset).
          I served seven year apprenticeship to train as a ‘hot metal compositor’ (1962-1969) probably among the last to pass through Bolton Street School of printing. Type is cast of an alloy of mostly lead so when you get to the larger sizes of type 60 point, certainly 72 point which were few and far between, a capital M or W could weigh as much as 1lb (one pound in weight). From 72 point to the largest sizes, the letters were and still are, made of wood, usually beech, 12line was the biggest size that there was in that printers. 12 inch letter or figure, usually used on posters, announcing ‘SALE’.

This is a picture of the caseroom where I served my time.

          The unit of measure in printing is the 12pt em, about 1/6 of an inch, 6x12pt ems = 72pt=one inch, which is also called one ‘line’. The reason the word line is used is because all the small boxes that make up a type case are removed, there are just lengths of wood to keep the individual letters lined up.
          During the time of Gutenberg the compositor at the print works cast his own type and usually tried to mimic hand writing, so there were great flourishes and lots and lots of ligatures. Like Wh, Th, fi, fl, ff, ffi, ffl, ampersand ‘&’ in common use today, developed to a ligature from the handwritten Latin letters e and t (Latin et for and) were combined.
          Latin enjoyed the status as lingua franca the language of the gentry, the church, the law courts and judges. The ability to be able to cast your own type to any design the compositor wished, accelerated the development of European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin.
          No printer in the past could have or would have the space for all the options that you have on any computer today. Because he would have to have a pair of cases, one for the capital letters the other for the lowercase letters. The pair of cases gave their position on the random to the type in that particular case of type, uppercase and lowercase. The upper case was positioned on the upper part of the stand and contained the capital letters, in the right half of the case and small capital letters on the left half of the case. Also around the edges small boxes contained th, st, nd, rd, and fi, fl, ff, ffi, ffl, pairs of single and double quotations, ‘’, “, different pairs of brackets, and the other sorts you find on your keyboard. The other case the ‘lower case’ on the lower part of the stand, closest to the compositor, with the smaller letters we now call ‘lowercase’.
          I never needed to count how many different type faces I have on my computer, there are 301. In the case room where I served my time there were 120 case of type in the case room alone, three stands six foot tall from floor up had 34 cases of type in each stand. If I remember correctly there were only twelve different type faces there in total. On one of those stands 6pt. 8pt. 10pt. 12pt. 14pt. in standard or normal face, also bold and italic in the same face, a pair of cases for each made 30 cases. There was no bold italic then, like on the computer today. There were at that time 20 different sizes in one face of type, if you had a family of that type face, normal, bold and italic. That is 120 cases for that one type face alone.
          What you have at your finger tips on a modern computer, is an extensive case room, with some add-ons you can make your own art, books, leaflets, posters, the list is endless, its thousands of times beyond anything Gutenberg could ever have dreamed of. Nearly all of the terminology used on computers today is derived from the case room, the printing trade and the great inventor, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz.