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The Gutenberg Revolution

The first European to successfully use movable type was probably Johann Gutenberg, who was born in Germany in 1397. Gutenberg hit upon the notion of cutting each letter in the alphabet on the end of a small stick. Each letter was then pressed into a small square of metal, and when Gutenberg had a letter-shaped hollow for each letter of the alphabet, he could produce type.

Gutenberg fitted four pieces of wood around the letter-shaped hollow, called a matrix, to form an open box. He then poured molten metal into the box, allowing it fill up the matrix. After the metal had cooled and hardened, the sides of the box were removed, leaving a small block with the letter in relief.

Gutenberg reassembled the box to produce as many copies of each letter as he needed. The walls of the box formed a mold that could be adjusted to fit all letters. This mold made possible the development of a less expensive and faster method of printing than had previously been in use.

By trial and error, Gutenberg discovered that the best metal for his type was a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony. This alloy had the advantage that it did not shrink when cooled, so all letters resembled the original matrix, and the pieces of type could be linked in rows. Alloys of lead, tin, and antimony are still used to make type.

The first book of any note to be printed with movable type was Gutenberg's Bible, published in 1456. Copies are still in existence. Printed in Latin, its pages consist of two columns of type, each 42 lines long. It is 1282 pages long. In producing this book, the type was arranged on each page, and inked before the paper was pressed down on it. Gutenberg may have used a wine press fitted with a heavy screw to press the paper against the type. After removing the sheet of paper, the type would then have been re-inked before another sheet of paper was placed on it.

Gutenberg printed about 200 Bibles in a five-year period. Each of the printed characters in the Bible was made to resemble handwriting. Because the type in the Gutenberg Bible makes the printed page very dark, it is called black letter. Gutenberg's Bible has wide margins, and the pages are well designed.

Gutenberg died in poverty. But his invention rapidly spread to other countries in Europe. By the time that Columbus was setting off for the New World, around 14,000 separate books had been printed in Europe. As hundreds of copies of each of these books could be found, there may have been as many as 20 million books in Europe at the time.

European printers continued to experiment with Gutenberg's technology. To make printed type easier to read, the Frenchman Nicolas Jensen introduced serifs, or tiny tails, at the end of his letters. This innovation had the effect of causing the reader's eye to skip from one letter to the next. This type eventually became more popular than Gutenberg's black letter type, and the letters are now known as Roman-style letters, because they were designed to resemble the stone carvings in ancient Rome.

Aldus Manutius designed a narrow slanting type, now called italic in honor of Italy where Manutius lived. This enabled Manutius to place many words on a single page, and small, cheap books soon became readily available.

The early European printers arranged their type by hand, character by character in a process known as typesetting. Type was stored in cabinet drawers, called cases. Each case held a complete set of type in a particular style and size, called a font. It was the convention for printers to keep their capital letters, now referred to as upper-case letters, separate from their small, or lower-case, letters.

Letters were removed from the type case, and arranged in rows in a small metal tray. Space bars were inserted to adjust the width of the line. Filling out a line became known as justification.

When the metal tray had been filled with justified lines, the lines were transferred to a larger metal tray called a galley. The galley was inked when the printer had made sure that there were no mistakes in the set type. The printed sheet of paper that was produced became known as the galley proof.

At first, European printers traveled from town to town, taking their type and small hand-operated presses with them. They became known as journeyman printers. Later, when plenty of shops had been established where they could practice their trade, itinerant printers traveled about with only their skills.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPrinting - History Of Printing, The Gutenberg Revolution, Conventional Printing Methods, Letterpress, Large Presses, Printing Pictures - Photogravure, Dot-matrix printers