Forty-two Lines That Changed the World

Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing with moveable type, is one of those rare epochal figures whose achievements truly changed the course of human history.

Little is known about Gutenberg the man, who was born in Mainz in the late 1300s, trained as a goldsmith and then, in the late 1420s, left for Strasbourg (now in France), where he first experimented with printing technology. By 1448 he was back in Mainz, still working on his top-secret project and in debt to some rather impatient ‘venture capitalists’. But eventually his perseverance paid off and he perfected a number of interdependent technologies:

  • Metal type that could be arranged into pages.
  • Precision moulds to produce such type in large quantities.
  • A metal alloy from which type could be cast.
  • A type of oil-based ink suitable for printing with metal type.
  • Press technology derived from existing wine, paper and bookbinding presses.

Despite several lawsuits, by 1455 Gutenberg had produced his masterpiece, the now-legendary Forty-two-line Bible, so-named because each page has 42 lines. Thus began a new era in human history, one in which the printed word – everything from Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses to the Declaration of the Rights of Man to Nazi propaganda – was to become almost universally accessible. In all of human history, arguably only two other inventions have come close to having the same impact on the availability of information: the alphabet and the internet.