This Day In Literary History
On June 23rd, 1398 (c), the legendary German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. As a young boy, he learned to read. This was a rare skill in the 15th century, as books were a luxury for the rich.
At that time, books had to be written by hand, (usually by monks, scholars, or scribes) a slow and expensive process. Fortunately for Gutenberg, he was born into a patrician (aristocratic) merchant family.
After he learned to read, he became an avid reader and spent hours in the library. The few libraries that existed then did not loan out their books. The books had to be read in the library and were chained to the wall to prevent theft.
Whenever Gutenberg's father ordered a book, it would take from several months to a year for the handwritten manuscript to be completed. Gutenberg hated to wait and dreamed of a more efficient means of producing books than writing them out by hand.
In 1411, there was an uprising against the patricians in Mainz, so the Gutenberg family moved to Eltville am Rhein, where Johannes took up the goldsmithing trade, as his father was a goldsmith who worked with the ecclesiastic mint.
Gutenberg became a skilled metalworker, and his skills would help him create his greatest invention - the mechanical printing press. By 1440, he began experimenting with the elements that would form his mechanical printing process.
Using his skills as a metalworker, Gutenberg designed a movable typeface, with separate metal type for each letter to be printed. He also developed oil-based inks of various colors that would hold up better on the page than the traditional water-based inks.
Last, but certainly not least, he built printing presses based on the designs of the olive, wine, and cheese presses of the time. By 1450, Gutenberg's print shop was in business. One of the first items to be printed there was a German poem.
The successful operation of the press and the quality of the printed material attracted attention, and Gutenberg was able to convince Johann Fust, a wealthy and powerful moneylender, to give him an 800-guilder loan to expand and maintain the business.
He took on Fust's son-in-law, Peter Schoffer, as an apprentice. In 1452, Gutenberg borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust. His print shop was a success and he printed thousands of indulgences for the Church.
Indulgences were certificates absolving the bearers of their sins and guaranteeing them a way out of Hell after their deaths. Indulgences were sold to rich parishioners - the only ones who could afford them.
This made the Church a tremendous amount of money. The printing of indulgences earned Gutenberg a tidy profit as well, which he put back into the business and used to repay his loans. He then embarked on his greatest printing project.
Gutenberg determined to print the most important book of the time - the Bible. He designed and tested beautiful layouts that combined color and black inks. Expenses for the Bible project started piling up, and he borrowed more money from Johann Fust.
Soon he was in debt for over 2,000 guilders. The Bible project took about three years to complete, and around 200 copies of the Bible were printed. During this time, a dispute arose between Gutenberg and Fust.
Fust accused Gutenberg of misusing the money he lent him and demanded all of it back. He filed suit at the archbishop's court. The court ruled in Fust's favor, giving him ownership of Gutenberg's print shop and half the bibles that had been printed.
Unfortunately, Fust also gained control of the Gutenberg name. Though effectively bankrupt, Gutenberg did run a small print shop in Bamberg and participated in another Bible printing project in 1459.
None of the materials he printed bore the Gutenberg name because Fust owned it. So it's uncertain exactly what Gutenberg printed in his little Bamberg shop. It's been speculated that he may have printed 300 copies of the 744-page Catholicon Dictionary there.
Johannes Gutenberg died in 1468 at approximately 70 years of age. By 1500, there were more than a thousand print shops in Europe. Gutenberg's dream of distributing information to the masses had come true.
In 1971, Project Gutenberg was launched by University of Illinois student Michael Hart, taking the inventor's dream into the digital age. The idea of Project Gutenberg was to digitize public domain texts into searchable ASCII files.
The files could then be stored on the university's Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer - one of fifteen nodes on a network that would serve as the precursor to the Internet. The first text to be digitized was the Declaration of Independence.
Project Gutenberg has since digitized over 30,000 public domain texts (novels, poetry, plays, nonfiction, etc.) in various languages. With the advent of telecommunication, Project Gutenberg e-texts were distributed on bulletin boards and the Internet.
E-books continue to evolve, and electronic reading devices like the Amazon Kindle have made them more popular than ever, but it was Johannes Gutenberg who gave the world its first means of mass-producing books.
Quote Of The Day
"The most important human being whoever lived, if you want to leave out religious figures, would be Johannes Gutenberg... that's when the liberation of human thought happened, because people could read the thoughts of people across the world, and have thoughts of their own, and publish them and spread information around." - Tom Clancy
Today's video features a documentary on Johannes Gutenberg, hosted and narrated by Stephen Fry. Enjoy!