How a Gutenberg Printing Press Actually Works

Everyone who was born without a smartphone in their crib knows how a printing press works... in theory. You line up the type, ink up the slate, slap a piece of paper on, and then press down to print. Easy money. But the beauty of these historically important devices is in the details.


It’s in the rolling of the ink onto the goose skin-covered bag stamp. It’s in the repeated beating of the oil-based ink (so it would stick to metal) onto the letters. It’s in the aligning of the pin to the paper so the pages would match up. It’s in the pulling of the press.

It’s nice to see the steps all happen one after the other (even if we already know how it works) because just seeing the amount of work it takes to get a Gutenberg printing press to print a single page makes me appreciate everything we have today just a little bit more.

[Sabrina Huyett]


Fun fact: Johannes Gutenberg tried to get rich by doing arbitrage with indulgences sold by the Catholic church; they were a sort of “get out of hell free” card you paid for in advance of actually committing a sin. He bought them in bulk and planned to sell them at a tidy profit at a regional fair*. It turned out the fair was the year before and he had to explain to his backers why their money was now a mostly worthless stack of paper. He had the printing press idea on the back burner, and sold it to his investors as a way out of the hole he’d dug himself. The big selling point: they could sell the presses to the church which could use them to print indulgences.

NB: most of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” were about indulgences and how wrong he thought they were.

*along with magic mirrors that were said to capture “holy light”.