WHICH invention of the past thousand years has most influenced your life? Was it the telephone, the television, or the motorcar? Probably it was none of these. According to many experts, it was mechanized printing. The man who is given credit for the invention of the first practical method is Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden, better known as Johannes Gutenberg. He came from an aristocratic background and therefore did not have to serve a regular apprenticeship.
Gutenberg’s brainchild has been described as “the great German contribution to civilization.” Each surviving copy of his printing masterpiece—the so-called 42-line Gutenberg Bible—is worth a fortune.
Gutenberg was born in Mainz, in or about the year 1397. Situated on the banks of the Rhine River, Mainz was then a town of some 6,000 residents. It was known as Golden Mainz, being the center of a powerful league of towns. The archbishops in Mainz were electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Mainz was famous for its goldsmiths. Young Johannes learned much about metalwork, including how to emboss letters in metal. Because of political squabbles, he went into exile for some years to Strasbourg, where he engaged in and taught gem cutting. But what occupied him most was his secret work on a new invention. Gutenberg tried to perfect the art of mechanized printing.
Gutenberg’s Genius and Fust’s Finances
Gutenberg returned to Mainz and continued his experiments. For finances, he turned to Johann Fust, who loaned him 1,600 guldens—a princely sum at a time when a skilled craftsman took home just 30 guldens a year. Fust was an astute businessman who saw a profit in the venture. What sort of venture did Gutenberg have in mind?
Gutenberg’s keen eye observed that certain items were being produced in large numbers, each identical to the other. Coins, for instance, were minted, and bullets were cast in metal. So why not print hundreds of identical pages of writing and then assemble the pages in numerical order into identical books? Which books? He thought of the Bible, a book so costly that only a privileged few had personal copies. Gutenberg aimed to produce large quantities of identical Bibles, making them much cheaper than handwritten copies without sacrificing any of their beauty. How was this to be done?
Most books were copied by hand, which required diligence and time. Printing had been tried with hand-carved wooden blocks, each containing a page of writing. A Chinese man named Pi Sheng had even made individual letters of pottery to be used in printing. In Korea, letters made of copper had been used at a state printing works. But printing with movable type—individually made letters that can be rearranged for each new page—demanded vast quantities of letters, and no one had developed a way of producing them. That was reserved for Gutenberg.
As an experienced metalworker, he grasped that printing could best be achieved with movable letters made of, not pottery or wood, but metal. They would be cast in a mold, not carved or baked in an oven. Gutenberg needed molds that could be used to cast all 26 letters of his alphabet—in lowercase and capital—plus double letters, punctuation marks, signs, and numbers. In all, he calculated that 290 different characters were needed, each with dozens of replicas.
Down to Work
Gutenberg chose as the style for his book the Gothic script in Latin, which was used by monks in copying the Bible. Using his experience in metalwork, he carved on a small steel block an embossed mirror image of each letter and symbol, that is, a relief image on the surface of the steel. This steel stamp was then used to punch the image into a small piece of softer metal, either copper or brass. The result was a true image of the letter sunk into the softer metal, called a matrix.
The next stage involved a casting mold, which was the product of Gutenberg’s genius. The mold was the size of a man’s fist and was open at the top and the bottom. The matrix for a letter was fixed to the bottom of the mold, and molten alloy was poured in at the top. The alloy—tin, lead, antimony, and bismuth—cooled and hardened quickly.
The alloy taken from the mold bore an embossed mirror image of the letter at one end and was called type. The process was repeated until the required number of pieces of that letter had been produced. Then the matrix was removed from the mold and replaced by the matrix of the next letter. Thus, any number of pieces of type for each letter and symbol could be produced within a short period of time. All the type was of uniform height, just as Gutenberg required.
Printing could now begin. Gutenberg chose a passage of the Bible he wished to copy. With setting stick in hand, he used type to spell words, and he formed words into lines of text. (Picture 3) Each line was justified, that is, made to be of uniform length. Using a galley, he composed lines into a column of text, two columns to a page. (Picture 4)
This page of text was locked into position on the flat bed of a press and was then moistened with black ink. (Picture 5) The press—similar to those used in wine making—transferred the ink from the type onto paper. The result was a printed page. More ink and paper were used and the process repeated until the required number of copies was printed. Since the type was movable, it could be reused to compose another page.
Gutenberg’s workshop, employing 15 to 20 people, completed the first printed Bible in 1455. About 180 copies were made. Each Bible had 1,282 pages, with 42 lines to a page, printed in two columns. The binding of the books—each Bible had two volumes—and the ornamental hand-painting of the headings and the first letter of each chapter were done later outside Gutenberg’s workshop.
Can we imagine how many pieces of type were needed to print the Bible? Each page contains about 2,600 characters. Assuming that Gutenberg had six typesetters, each of whom worked on three pages at once, they would have required some 46,000 pieces. We can readily understand that Gutenberg’s casting mold held the key to printing with movable letters.
People were astounded when they compared the Bibles: Each word was in the same position. That was impossible with handwritten documents. Günther S. Wegener writes that the 42-line Bible was of “such uniformity and symmetry, harmony and beauty, that printers throughout the ages have been struck with awe by this masterpiece.”
Fust, however, was less interested in making a masterpiece than in making money. The return on his investment was taking longer than expected. The partners became estranged, and in 1455—just as the Bibles were being completed—Fust foreclosed on the loans. Gutenberg was unable to repay the money and lost the ensuing court case. He was forced to surrender to Fust at least some of his printing equipment and the type for the Bibles. Fust opened his own printery together with Gutenberg’s skilled employee Peter Schöffer. Their business, Fust and Schöffer, reaped the good name that Gutenberg had earned and became the world’s first commercially successful printery.
Gutenberg tried to continue his work by setting up another printery. Some scholars attribute to him other printed material dating back to the 15th century. But nothing achieved the majesty and splendor of the 42-line Bible. In 1462 misfortune struck again. As a result of a power struggle within the Catholic hierarchy, Mainz was burned and looted. Gutenberg lost his workshop for a second time. He died six years later, in February 1468.
Gutenberg’s invention spread rapidly. By the year 1500, there were printing presses in 60 German towns and 12 other European countries. “The development of printing amounted to a communications revolution,” states The New Encyclopædia Britannica. “Over the next 500 years a great many improvements were made in the mechanics of printing, but the fundamental process remained essentially the same.”
Printing transformed European life, since knowledge was no longer the preserve of the privileged. News and information began to reach the common man, who became more aware of things going on around him. Printing made it necessary to give each of the national languages a standard written form that everyone could understand. Hence, the English, French, and German languages were standardized and preserved. The demand for reading material increased astronomically. Prior to Gutenberg there were a few thousand manuscripts in Europe; 50 years after his death, there were millions of books.
The 16th-century Reformation would have been stillborn without mechanized printing. The Bible was translated into Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Slavonic, and the printing press made easy work of publishing tens of thousands of copies. Martin Luther made good use of the printing press in spreading his message. He succeeded in his endeavors where others, who lived before Gutenberg’s press, had failed. No wonder Luther described the printing press as God’s way “to spread the true religion throughout the world”!
Surviving Copies of the Gutenberg Bible
How many Gutenberg Bibles have survived? Until recently the number was believed to be 48—some of them incomplete—scattered around Europe and North America. One of the most elegant copies is a parchment Bible at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Then, in 1996, a sensational discovery was made: A further section of the Gutenberg Bible was discovered in a church archive in Rendsburg, Germany.—See Awake! of January 22, 1998, page 29.
How grateful we can be that the Bible is now affordable to anyone! Of course, that does not mean that we can go out and buy a 42-line Gutenberg! How much is one worth? The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz obtained a copy in 1978 for 3.7 million deutsche marks (today about $2 million). This Bible is now worth several times that amount.
What makes the Gutenberg Bible unique? Professor Helmut Presser, former director of the Gutenberg Museum, suggests three reasons. First, Gutenberg’s Bible was the first book to be printed in the West with movable letters. Second, it was the first Bible ever printed. Third, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Professor Presser writes that in the Gutenberg Bible, we see “Gothic writing at its absolute zenith.”
People of all cultures are indebted to Gutenberg’s genius. He brought together casting mold, alloy, ink, and press. He mechanized printing and enriched the world.