Type Casted in Metal: Johannes Gutenberg's Movable Cast of Characters

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Letterpress material by Justin Knopp

In letterpress printing, “forme is an arrangement of printing material with accompanying spacing material.

Around 1439, a goldsmith arrived at one of the world’s most amazing inventions. Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, is credited as the first to create the printing press. Equal to the profound significance of this machine was his other discovery, which fed the presses: Movable type. Gutenberg drew on his knowledge of metallurgy to concoct molding and casting letters”the type matter itself. It proved both unbendable and unbreakable; reused in any combination to compose other documents. This reusability is what made it movable, compounded by the moving parts of the printing press. Gutenberg’s type letters consisted of an alloy of lead, tin and antimony”the same ingredients still in use today.

At its advent, movable type, with its collaborator in the printing press, made the creation of visual messages faster and more durable. Both inventions unleashed a wide information landscape, now predominantly digitized. And yet, manual printing remains steadfast and re-energized. It’s wonderful to see many individuals and groups seeding a printing press and planting a creative enterprise. Whether manual or digital, the private press movement cherishes the visual communication originally advanced by Gutenberg’s metallic sensibilities.

John Kristensen, Proprietor of Firefly Press in Somerville, Massachusetts, expressed the tactility of printing with metal letters:

“You are dealing with physical stuff. Letters are things, not pictures of things. And when you assemble metal type, you are obliged to acknowledge and accept that.

Letterpress material by Justin Knopp

Large cast metal letterpress block

The manual printing press persists in meaning and relevance. It involves metal in handling type, handcrafting typography and, in turn, hand-printing physical documents. The production may be mechanical, but the mindful hands-on process and resulting printed communication is warmly human.

Images by Justin Knopp, Typoretum, Colchester, England

Nate Burgos

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