Johannes Gutenberg‘s invention of printing with movable type is based on a simple but ingenious principle: the text is broken down into its smallest components, the letters and punctuation marks. These individual building blocks in the form of metal type can always be reassembled into different texts. What is impressive about Gutenberg’s achievement is that he developed all the necessary parts for a complete, complex system for the mechanical printing of texts. Everything works so well together that the process has barely been changed over the centuries.
The first part of Gutenberg’s invention was the production of moulds for printing type. First, a letter is engraved in reverse and raised on the tip of a hard metal rod, such as steel. This creates a punch. Such punches for embossing letters were already known in Gutenberg’s time and were used, for example, by goldsmiths. In 1444, Gutenberg was described in a list of the inhabitants of Strasbourg as a “Zugeselle” of the goldsmith guild. However, this is not synonymous with a full member. As a patrician, Gutenberg was not a goldsmith, but he had the necessary technical knowledge and worked closely with a large team of craftsmen, experts and financiers for his invention.
The punch is punched into a piece of softer metal, such as copper. The result is a deepened and laterally correct image of the letter and thus a casting mould. This mould as the counterpart to the punch is called the matrix. With a matrix any number of type or “sort” can be cast. As the underlying moulds of a font, the matrices were of great value to the printers and were carefully stored so that new, identical sorts could be cast if necessary.
You can find out more about the casting of the printing type in Part 2 of our new series about “Gutenberg’s Inventions”.