Gutenberg’s anniversary

It was on this day in 1452 that the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was published in Mainz, Germany. It was the first book ever printed with movable type, Gutenberg’s revolutionary idea. At the time, all existing books were copied out by hand, and in order to be as efficient as possible, scribes had developed a way of writing that was full of abbreviations. Words were written in a dense cursive script, and there was very little space between letters or even words on the page.It was Gutenberg’s genius to imagine an entirely different way of writing, in which all the individual letters would be distinct from each other, rather than connected. That way, he could produce individual blocks with letters on them. He fitted these letter blocks into a frame, coated them with an ink made of linseed oil and soot, and then used an adapted wine press to print text on paper. The revolutionary effect of movable type was the ability to print an infinite number of pages from a small number of letter blocks simply by rearranging them.Within three decades there were print shops all over the European continent. It is estimated that more books were produced in the 50 years after Gutenberg’s invention than scribes had been able to produce in the 1,000 years before that.Today, about four dozen copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive. One of the most recent copies to come on the market was auctioned in New York in 1987. It consisted of only the first volume, but it was in good condition, and it sold at auction for more than five million dollars.

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The last time I was in New York I was blindsided by a Gutenberg Bible. I literally backed into it while checking out the New York Public Library. It affected me tremendously. And perhaps most of all because it was still perfectly legible.
But a few facts not noted here.

1) When John Jacob Astor, one of the main patrons of the library, brought the Bible into the United States he made the Customs officers remove their hats.

2) Shortly after printing his Bible Gutenberg went bankrupt.
Happy birthday moveable type!

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4 replies on “Gutenberg’s anniversary”

  1. …it was still perfectly legible.

    Today, printers use ink that vanishes after six months. That way customers can’t give their books to their kids to read. Their kids have to buy them again. And, they can’t even let their neighbors read them, because of the built in DRM, which require special glasses, which only work for the purchaser.

    …used an adapted wine press

    Philosophers, which have been known to read books from time to time, still drink wine today, as well has beer. At least some of this wine is bootleg, as it was in Gutenberg’s time.

  2. There’s a rumor floating around that it was the Chinese that actually invented moveable type, WAY before Gutenberg. I have to admit that I believe it. Your challenge, Seanachai, is to prove me right — or else prove me wrong.

    (Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.)

  3. According to Wikipedia, that 100% accurate source of knowledge, yes, the Chineese had developed movable type before Gutenburg. Their character system, however, limited its usefulness. Even then, it went through several generations and it doesn’t sound from the article that they ever got it completely right. (Their first blocks were made of clay, and even after the blocks were made of metal, it wasn’t widely used.)

    Gutenburg’s genius was two-fold. He discovered the alloy that melted at a low enough temperature, but expanded just enough as it cooled to make a completely clear character image. He also invented the recipie for the ink that would stick to the top of the characters without running off before he could get the paper on it.

    Besides, even if the Chineese did have it first, it wasn’t them that pulled the Western world out of the dark ages. The credit for that, I think, rests squarely with Johannes Gutenberg.

  4. Gutenberg went bankrupt becuase his financier and assistant cut him out of the deal…

    “This process of producing a book cost a fair amount of money. Johann Fust, who had helped finance Gutenberg, foreclosed on the loan in November 1455 and locked him out of the print shop once the process was refined. This act prevented Gutenberg from selling the books, which had comsumed five years of his life’s work and which was only a few months from completeion. Pete Schoffer, Gutenberg’s assistant, was brought in as a partner to Fust to manage the press. Together they finished printing approximately 180 Bibles and made a fortune once the Bibles were signed and sold the following August.”
    ~~”A Typographic Workbook” by Kate Clair and Cynthia Busic-Snyder

    So, it just goes to show you….

    something, I guess…

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