History of advertising: No 130: Johann Gutenberg's printing press

It's hard to imagine a more unlikely architect of the media world as we know it than Johann Gutenberg.

History of advertising: No 130: Johann Gutenberg's printing press

He was a secretive and paranoid character whose perpetual money problems and interest in get-rich-quick schemes led one commentator to describe him as "something of a grifter".

Nevertheless, Gutenberg left a legacy so priceless that its significance has been compared by some experts to the invention of writing and the coming of the internet. Indeed, in 1999 – 531 years after the death of the one-time goldsmith from Mainz, Germany – Time named him its "Person of the Millennium".

This isn’t the odd choice it might first seem. Gutenberg was the inventor of the movable-type printing press, a global game-changer that spread knowledge and ushered in cultural change in a way unmatched until the internet.

Mark Twain wrote: "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg."

Unveiled around 1440, the press didn’t mark the invention of printing but was a vast improvement on the slow and laborious "block printing" method in which text had to be carved into a block of wood that was useless once used.

Based on the design of screw-type wine presses, Gutenberg’s press allowed metal block type to be arranged as desired and coated with ink. Next, a lever pressed the typeface on to paper. The typeface could then be "moved" or rearranged.

Before Gutenberg, advertising was mostly a word-of-mouth business. Afterwards, printing enabled handbills, posters, flyers, pamphlets and other publicity material to be produced in large numbers.

In fact, it’s fair to say that Gutenberg’s press provided the spark for advertising to flourish by paving the way for newspapers, the first form of mass-media publishing.


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