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History of Books and Printing @ Archives & Special Collections: First Century of Printing

This guide provides an overview of books located at Special Collections on the history of books and printing.

Gutenberg and his Printing Press

It is believed that Gutenberg, originally a goldsmith, began experimenting with movable type casts from matrices as early as 1440 while in exile in Strasbourg. By 1450 Gutenberg had perfected his printing press and was ready to commercialize the product. However, by 1455 Gutenberg was forced into foreclosure by his financer and sold off the majority of his presses and types. It is suspected that the only types Gutenberg was able to retain were those to the 36- and 42-line Bibles and the Catholicon. Further evidence suggests that by 1460 Gutenberg had abandoned printing altogether due to blindness.

Despite his tragic ending, Gutenberg was able to contribute a great deal to the improvement of the printing industry. Though his ideas were not novel, he did replace wooden prints with metal and the whole-sheet block print with individual letters. Additionally he transformed an everyday instrument into something suitable for compressing and flattening printing paper.

However, with all of these things in mind, it is important to note that not only were books printed before Gutenberg but there were numerous people across the European continent, particularly in Avignon, Bruges, and Bologna that were also developing presses with moveable type at the same time as Gutenberg. The most notable of these were Johannes Fust and Peter Schöffer

Other Notable Benchmarks in Early Printing

1461: Der Ackermann aus Bohmen printed by Albrecht Pfister, the first printed book in German, and also the first book illustrated with woodcuts.

c. 1475: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye was the first book printed in the English language.

1476: Grammatica Graeca, sive compendium octo orationis partium, probably the first book entirely in Greek by Constantine Lascaris.

1477: The first printed edition of the Geographia, probably in 1477 in Bologna, was also the first printed book with engraved illustrations.

1485: De Re Aedificatoria, the first printed book on architecture

1487: "Pentateuco", the first book printed in Hebraic language, by Samuel Gacon in Vila-a-Dentro, Faro.

1499: Catholicon, Breton-French-Latin dictionary, first printed trilingual dictionary

1501: Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, printed by Ottaviano Petrucci, is the first book of sheet music printed from movable type.

1501: Aldus Manutius printed the first portable octavo, also invented and used italic type.

1539: La escala espiritual de San Juan Clímaco, first book printed in North America - Mexico