Updated: Sep 26
It was a warm spring day in the town of Mainz, Germany where rays of sun danced around the clouds that cast shadows on the ground. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the day. Men and women, boys and girls, walked along the cobbled streets going about their daily lives. But, it was also no ordinary day. In fact, it was quite extraordinary. Because in front of me, inside a vault and beneath bullet proof glass, lay one of 49 remaining copies of the world’s first printed book: The Gutenberg Bible. As silly as it seems for a book to overcome you, the sheer magnitude of the object before me caught in my throat and I nearly cried. “I owe my profession to you. I owe my education to you. We owe our technology and communities and current place in time to you.” It was extraordinary, after all.
But to understand this story, we need to back up nearly 500 years.
Johannes Gutenberg was a businessman who lived in 15th century Germany. He was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Millennium and his work was credited as the most important of the last 1000 years. Although he deserves huge recognition because our world would not be as we know it today if it were not for him, it’s a common misconception to say that he invented the printing press. Instead, he commercialized it. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. You see, he took existing technologies (a press for making wine, paper, which was invented more than a century earlier, and moveable type that can be traced back more than three centuries earlier) to give birth to mass production. He saw an opportunity to make money in books: to speed up and radically alter book making because before Gutenberg came on the scene, books were written by hand. It’s somewhat ironic that the world’s richest man today, Jeff Bezos, got his start in exactly the same way: selling books. However Gutenberg’s financial fate didn’t end in riches (more on that in a minute).
It would sometimes take months and even years for the text in a single manuscript to be copied. And after all of that work, there were two books. Two. This obviously made the books of the day very expensive and available only to those who could afford them. However it’s a misconception that most people of the time were illiterate. Yes, literacy rates improved because of the access to less expensive printed books, however most adults were taught to read basic words in their local dialect. This meant that they knew enough to be able to read a contract and get by in business, for example.
While he didn’t, truly, invent the printing press, one critical component to the process that he did invent, was a device used the make (cast) the metal moveable type. Moveable type is like the letter tiles of a Scrabble game board. Each letter exists on its own little tile and they can be rearranged in any order you wish to spell different words. This is exactly what moveable type is but the letters were raised (similar to the way a rubber stamp’s image is raised) so that once all the letters were in place, ink was applied to the surface, paper laid over top and pressure was applied from above to transfer the ink to the paper. It’s simple technology in our eyes today (it’s essentially a craft project that every kindergartener does at some point in their playtime career) but 500 years ago, it was revolutionary.
Let’s get back to Gutenberg’s movable type maker… he invented a little handheld device that contained and matrix and a patrix (a male and female mold) of a letter of the alphabet. When hot molten lead was poured into the mold, a piece of moveable type was formed. The letter was popped out, the mold was reset, and more lead was poured in to create another piece of type. This was done over and over and over again for each letter of the alphabet. This process ensured consistency from one letter to the next. (All of the e’s looked identical, and so on.) With enough letters, it allowed Gutenberg to arrange the type to form words, that formed sentences, that formed paragraphs, that formed pages to create books. So although the concept of moveable type was not new, the ability to create consistent and uniform pieces of type in a relatively quick and easy way (his mold system) was vitally important to the process.
There were approximately 25 people working with Gutenberg in his print shop, which was considered a large company in the town of Mainz that had only 6000 people living there. Also, he had a modern way of thinking about jobs and salaries. He separated the jobs into titles with different salaries. For example, children were employed to move paper and add to the fire and they were paid very little, while typesetters (who were literate) were paid much better.
Gutenberg completed his first book project after raising the funds for all 180 copies in advance of printing (so it was basically the world’s first successful Kickstarter campaign). The book was a bible, which was completed around 1455. The book was laid out with columns of text that have 42 lines each (which is why it’s often referred to as the 42-line bible). The book was of very high quality and it showed great consistency of printing through its 1286 pages. Blackletter, the typeface designed by Gutenberg and used throughout the bible, was created to mimic the handwritten characters found in previously scribed works. Here are a few more Gutenberg Bible facts:
- The bible existed over two large volumes
- 180 were produced, 49 still exist today (11 in the United States), and only 20 complete copies exist
- There were two versions - one printed on paper and one printed on vellum (animal skin)
- The two volumes were unbound so recipients would have had to take it to a book binder after receiving their copy
- The pages were only printed in black (it would have taken too long to print other colours) so all colour in the drop caps and other flourishes was added later by hand (called an Illuminator)
- Therefore no two bibles were the same
If you want to get a more visual sense of what I’m referred to, I recommend watching an excellent documentary called The Machine That Made Us, where actor Stephen Fry retraces Gutenberg’s footsteps and uses the tools of the 15th century in an attempt to reconstruct his processes and technologies. It’s a really interesting watch.
Over the next 50 years there was an explosion of printing throughout Europe. Before the year 1455 there were no books printed. By the year 1500, approximately 10 million copies of 3,500 works were printed and distributed. There was an unprecedented amount of technical and social knowledge in the world in the hands of people who could have never before afforded to own books. At this point in history the world ‘novel’ literally meant new and never been seen. Printing was so widespread, which meant there was huge excess capacity on printing presses, enabling printers to do something revolutionary. They started printing works other than religious texts; works that people had never read before. They printed novels.
It’s safe to say that Gutenberg’s work revolutionized communication, changing the course of history for all future inhabitants of this planet. We’re all deeply connected to Gutenberg’s technology any time we read something on a paper or a screen. However, beyond the obvious connections to literacy and the written word, Gutenberg’s work has enabled humans to share information, spread knowledge, and build societies in ways that would not have been possible without having a way to mass produce books. Thank you Mr. G.
But Gutenberg’s story didn’t end in complete fame and fortune. He was said to be a paranoid character who concerned himself in shady dealings; even shady for the 1500’s. His path to commercializing printing might even be seen as a ‘get-rich-quick scheme’. He invented technologies that would help successfully commercialize book making and printed subject matter that people would pay for, to turn a profit. But, ultimately, he ran out of money before he could get his idea off the ground so he turned to a wealthy lawyer (‘angel investor’ in today’s lingo) named Johann Fust to help him launch the business. Before his idea could really get off the ground, Fust sued him for the money he had loaned Gutenberg, plus interest, forcing him into bankruptcy. Fust got the print shop and the press. Fust then hired Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg’s right hand man and technical guru who ran the press (basically my Scott Millward), and the two continued to print books and make lots of money in the process.
But no matter how paranoid or shady or poor, the reality is that Gutenberg was an inventive man who brought the first, true printed book into this world. And in 2016, I had the rare opportunity to see this book first hand. It was an incredible experience.
And now I have something exciting to share with you. Through the power (and magic!) of technology, you, too, can see the extraordinary thing I saw that day. Anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection can look at a Gutenberg bible right now. Unreal. The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has scanned their complete copy of the bible to be accessible to the world. Check it out at www.hrc.utexas.edu/gutenberg-bible/.
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