Johann Gutenberg: Genuine Inventor and Benefactor of Mankind

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May 7, 2008

In a previous essay, NASA, the Aerospace Welfare Queen, we explored what happens when technology is grafted onto big-government militarism and the bread-and-circuses mentality of the state. The result? The kind of scientific 'achievement' described by Ayn Rand as Project X in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Not very inspiring. But to avoid being as negative as Annie Wilkes in the Steven King film, Misery, this essay will be uplifting. It will focus on a true benefactor of mankind, Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of printing with moveable metal type. Better yet, it will show that his innovative application of printing technologies was not only a showcase example of market anarchism, but a greater source of benefit to mankind than state-sponsored technologies can ever hope to be. It is a story not only of innovation, but of immigration, opposition to politically connected interests, and freedom of information.

Remember the Millennium?

Nearly ten years ago--in time for the millennium celebrations--Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1400-1468) was singled out as the greatest inventor of the past 1,000 years by the British Broadcasting Company ( BBC ). Life rated his printing of the Bible as the top event of that time period. In addition, the Exlibris news and discussion group ( University of California at Berkeley ) dubbed him Man of the Millennium. There were good reasons to celebrate Gutenberg's innovation--not to mention subsequent related breakthroughs such as (1) offset printing, which transferred images from page-size plates onto paper beginning in 1904, (2) digital printing, which developed in the 1980s, and (3) web-page publication, which developed in the 1990s and was the result of a decision (in 1988) to end the 30-year stranglehold of the U.S. government on Internet development. And while some may argue that the origins of the Internet lie in the government-sponsored ARPANET, the ARPANET is yet another example of state-sponsored Frankenstein technology--a relative dead end that did not yield significant benefits until it was released from its state-enforced dungeon to become transformed by the private sector into the World Wide Web. In a sense, the Web has multiplied the potential of Gutenberg's original invention: first, Gutenberg made possible the publishing industry, in which scarce resources are concentrated to fund the dissemination of information from relatively few replication centers; the Web takes it further, making it possible for everyone to become a publishing center.

Fact and Fiction: The Discovery of Printing

First, let's look at what Gutenberg did and didn't do. He did not invent either book printing or moveable type. In The Gutenberg Bible, James Thorpe, former director of the Huntington Library, points out that the earliest known wood-block printing of a book took place in 9th century China with the 16-foot-long roll of the Diamond Sutra. To produce it, entire pages were carved into flat wooden blocks that were inked and pressed onto paper rolls. Furthermore, as early as the 11th century, printers in China (and Korea ) were experimenting with pieces of moveable type made of baked clay. That invention, however, did not endure in East Asia because too many distinctive pieces of 'type' (the baked-clay letters) had to be created to print a book. In contrast to the 26-letter English alphabet, for example, the Chinese language uses approximately 40,000 ideographs--far too many (at the time) to offer any labor-saving advantages through printing.

Copying Books by Hand

In Europe until the time of Gutenberg, books were copied by hand, usually on some type of parchment (the skin of an adult sheep, goat, or cow) or on vellum (skin from a newborn calf). During the early Middle Ages, most of this copying took place at monasteries in a scriptorium, but by the 13th century, busy manuscript-copying establishments were located in major cities--usually near the early universities where books were in demand. Wherever manuscript copies were made, however, they contained errors. The quill pens used by copyists--usually made of goose feathers--required frequent refills from ink pots, and the tedium of copying led to errors consisting of repeated or omitted portions of text. Even the introduction of wood-block printing in Europe during the late 14th and early 15th Centuries (usually for illustrations) offered few advantages. For example, wood-block carvings were laborious to create and could be ruined with a single false stroke of the carver's knife. They also wore out quickly and could not produce clear imprints for very long. And while it is true that manuscript copyists used abbreviations to save time, new books still required about a year to produce. Not surprisingly, they were very expensive. As a result, the literacy rate was low--only 30% in some English towns during the 15th century.

The Printing Press in Action

The idea of printing with reusable pieces of durable, moveable type held definite advantages for Europeans. Since the Latin alphabet had only 23 basic letters, only a limited range of metal pieces of type had to be cast and replicated. Once created, these pieces of type could be arranged into orderly rows and pages of text on a printing forme. The letters were inked up, and damp paper or parchment was lowered onto them to receive the ink impression. The result was hundreds of nearly identical copies of books. Once a set of pages were printed, the pieces of type could be reassembled again and again to print other pages and books until they finally wore out after many uses. All things considered, printing with re-usable, metal type yielded savings in labor and cost, greater accuracy and consistency in the final product, and a remarkable increase in the volume of books available.

A Market-Driven Process

The invention of printing, however, did not occur in a vacuum. Like any other product, it was subject to market conditions to which Gutenberg responded in an entrepreneurial way. We already have seen how the Western alphabet--with its limited set of letters--played a supporting role in the success of European printing. To this, we can add the availability of paper in 15th century Europe--a cost-effective substitute for parchment and vellum. According to Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst (A Short History of the Printed Word), the process of making paper from plant fibers was discovered in China in the 2nd century. It spread to the Middle East in the 8th century (where it was improved), and the Moors brought it to Spain (11th century). By the late 13th century, a paper mill that used linen and rag fibers was operating in the Italian town of Fabriano . From there, it spread rapidly through Europe--just in time for Gutenberg's invention.

Gutenberg was responsible for the print process itself, and his story has been outlined by Christopher de Hamel in The Book: A History of the Bible. As a stepping stone to the invention of printing, however, Gutenberg may have developed a mechanical-stamping process in the late 1430s. Details of his metal-stamping process, however, are unclear, and what little we know is based on the much-debated record of a lawsuit that was filed after the death of one of his business partners. Nonetheless, it appears that while living in Strassburg, Gutenberg and his partners intended to mass-produce small, inexpensive convex mirrors by using Gutenberg's metal-stamping process. They planned to sell the mirrors to pilgrims visiting the holy relics in the city of Aachen. The relics were displayed every seven years, and pilgrims would pin the expensive mirrors to their hats, or they would hold them up as they viewed the holy objects. The mirrors would reflect--and thus capture--some of the spiritual presence of the relics. Unfortunately, Gutenberg and his partners miscalculated the date of the pilgrimage (or perhaps it was changed); the pilgrimage took place in 1440 instead of 1439. This delay and the partner's death led to the failure of the enterprise. Nonetheless, this business venture may have contributed to Gutenberg's later innovations when he moved to the city of Mainz in 1448. Note, however, that this was an entirely private endeavor. No risk was forced upon taxpayers.

Gutenberg's Test Projects

In Mainz, where Gutenberg eventually established his printing operation, a legal document once again provides the few reliable details that have been passed down to us. The document (called the 'Helmasperger Instrument' after the notary who signed it on November 6, 1455) describes the attempted recovery of two loans taken out by Gutenberg in 1450 and 1452. It also mentions Gutenberg's project as 'the work of the books,' and it is described in Johann Gutenberg and His Bible, by Janet Ing. Despite a settlement that obligated Gutenberg to repay with interest any money not used on the project, the settlement may have favored Gutenberg--despite a legend that he was bankrupted as a result. Furthermore, it is possible that Gutenberg continued to print books in Mainz during the 1450s even though his moneylender (Johann Fust) and his assistant (Peter Sch'ffer) became partners in their own printing business there.

In 1454, the year before he printed his Bible, Gutenberg completed a few smaller projects, and they testify to his entrepreneurial spirit. They included a pamphlet warning of the danger posed by the Turks, who had just captured the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. In addition, there were four printings of indulgences, which were sold to raise funds for a war against the Turks. He also printed a New Year's greeting in German and a small Latin grammar. These small projects indicate a businessman who was 'ramping up' his operation for a bigger undertaking, such as the printing of the Bible. Once again, Gutenberg's projects were entirely for profit.

Marketing the Bible

In the case of the Bible, Gutenberg was targeting a specific group of customers: religious institutions such as monasteries. They were his best potential customers because they needed large Bibles for public readings. Only a limited number of wealthy individuals could afford the other copies. Providing a glimpse into Gutenberg's sales effort, we have a letter written by Aeneas Silvius, who subsequently became Pope Pius II in 1458. He personally witnessed Gutenberg displaying several sections of his not-yet-completed Bible in October 1454 at a conference of nobles in Frankfurt. The purpose of the conference was to rally public support for war against the Turks. Gutenberg clearly perceived the anti-Turk hysteria as a boon to his sales effort--a kind of rally-round-the-Bible marketing opportunity that exploited Christian fears of Turks and their faith--Islam. From the letter of Aeneas Silvius, we also learned that Gutenberg had pre-sold every copy of his Bible before its completion. Furthermore, there is undisputed evidence that Gutenberg had to increase the size of his print-run by about 33% to meet the high demand. This required him to re-set (with type) and re-print additional pages of some early sections of his Bible and purchase additional paper and parchment. The re-printed sections of his Bible contain subtle differences that can be seen today in the surviving copies.

Short-Term Benefits of Printing

The scale of the Gutenberg Bible project was astonishing for its time. Each printed Bible consists of two volumes totaling 1,286 pages and measuring 11-' by 16 inches. They are set in two columns of large, Gothic, black-letter type with 40 to 42 lines per page, and they can be read at a distance of three feet. Approximately 160 to 180 copies were printed--75% on paper and the rest on parchment. Paper copies weigh 30 pounds each, and parchment copies weigh 50 pounds--each requiring the skins of about 160 animals (over 6,000 skins for all of the copies). Although the Latin alphabet has only 23 letters, a complete set of metal upper- and lowercase type used to create the Bible--including abbreviations, diphthongs, and punctuation marks--consisted of 290 characters. Four to six employees were busy setting type, and the print office held 200,000 printed pages stacked up for binding at the conclusion of the project. Today, only 48 copies survive--36 on paper, 12 on parchment. Only two parchment and four paper copies are in the U.S. , and prices have risen dramatically. A copy sold for $2,600 in 1847 and $50,000 in 1911. In 1978, the going price was $2.2 million, and in 1987, one volume (1/2 of a set) sold for $5.4 million at Christie's. Nobody knows what Bill Gates paid for the complete copy he purchased in 1994, but some say it was nearly $31 million. A single leaf can easily fetch more than $60,000. Contrast this with NASA. Who wouldn't happily pay to shut it down--along with its succession of orbiting money-pits that disintegrate and rain down debris from the sky?

The influence of Gutenberg's Latin Bible was tremendous, and by the end of the 15th century, 80 more Bible editions were printed in Europe--all but two of them based directly on Gutenberg's text (which was itself based on a 13th-century version of Jerome's late-4th-century Vulgate translation). Even more important were the spread of printing beyond its birthplace in the city of Mainz and the consequences of that proliferation. By 1470, there were printers in 14 European cities, and by 1480 they were located in more than 100. By the end of the year 1500, over 1,100 print shops were doing business in more than 200 European towns, and they had printed over 10 million books. We refer to these early printed books (through the year 1500) as incunabula, from the Latin word for swaddling clothes or cradle, because they represent the infancy of printing.

Long-Term Benefits of Printing

The creation of large numbers of books was not the only spin-off benefit of Gutenberg's invention. The abundance of books was reflected in the growing size and number of libraries as well. Before the advent of printing, libraries existed only in a few centers of learning and were very small. In England, for example, the largest libraries were located at Canterbury and Bury--each holding about 2,000 books. Cambridge University Library held only 300 titles at the time, but today it holds over 5.5 million books and more than 1.2 million periodicals. With the widespread availability of books, the literacy rate increased. From a 15th-century rate of 30% in some English locations, it rose to between 30 and 40% in the 16th and 17th centuries, 60% in the 18th century, and 90% in the 20th and 21st centuries (although today's government schools are doing their best to curtail independent thought and churn out slogan-spouting automatons instead).

While the literacy rate rose, there also was a shift from oral learning to learning through reading--which made self-education even more widespread. There also was greater access to ideas and an increase in knowledge on the part of literate men and women. This helped to unleash an era of innovation and invention that continues today. Some people even credit the success of the Protestant revolt to the printing press. If we consider the World Wide Web to be an outgrowth of the printing process, the number of 'publishing' centers continues to grow. For example, a Netcraft survey compiled in June 2006 identified 85,541,228 sites.

Immigration: China to Islam to Westminster

We already have seen how the art of paper-making had its roots in East Asia and spread to the civilization of Islam before arriving in Europe. The free movement of people across borders--immigration--enabled the rapid spread of the new technology, and the story of William Caxton (ca. 1422-1492) illustrates perfectly the spread of printing and ideas from one country to another. Caxton is famous because he printed the first book in the English language and introduced the printing press to England . Nonetheless, he spent much of his life abroad. By the year 1446, he was living in Bruges ( Belgium ). There he printed the first book in English in about 1473/1474--the Recuyell (compilation) of the Historyes of Troye, which was his own translation of a French courtly romance. He completed this translation while living in Koln ( Germany ), and he probably learned the art of printing from Ulrich Zell, a priest from Mainz ( Germany ). He moved back to England in 1475 or early 1476, and he set up a print shop near Westminster Abbey. There he published the first books printed on English soil. Among these were Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1476) and the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers (1477). The latter was based on a work that originally was written in Egypt by Mubashshir ibn F'tik in the 11th century. The original was translated from Arabic into Spanish, then Latin, and finally French before being translated into English. For those who suffer from the current xenophobic infatuation with impermeable borders and immigration restrictions, the story of printing offers a powerful and much-needed antidote.

Special Interests Oppose Innovation

With its many benefits, one would think that the invention of moveable-type printing was universally hailed, but vested interests can be counted on to oppose changes that threaten them. Just ask aerospace engineers how they would feel if competitors such as Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne eliminated their NASA gravy train. In the case of 15th century printing, calligraphers and illuminators levied political pressure to restrict its spread. Resistance was strongest in the city of Florence , where (according to Chappell and Bringhurst) calligraphers and their customers were 'contemptuous of what they considered the vulgar and mechanical imitations of good manuscripts.' Oddly enough, the establishment of printing by the end of the 15th century did not spell doom for calligraphers. As more people learned to read, more learned to write. Consequently, the art of calligraphy continued to thrive. The 16th century was distinguished by many of the most beautiful manuscripts, and it also was the age of the great handwriting manuals.

Printing'or Imitation Handwriting?

To understand the early opposition of calligraphers, we must remember that Gutenberg and other early printers did not conceive of printing as a way to produce a new kind of product. They viewed their technology as a way to produce handwriting. Consequently, calligraphers viewed printing as a direct competitor. Perhaps the greatest authority on early printing, Konrad Haebler (author of The Study of Incunabula as well as The German Incunabula and The Italian Incunabula), wrote extensively about the goals and practices of early printers. He explained that early printers--to comply with the aesthetic demands of their customers--were compelled to use confusing (to us) abbreviations in their printed products even though they were rendered entirely unnecessary by the new technology. It is easy to understand why scribes made use of these labor-saving shortcuts: it reduced the amount of writing they had to do. But the printing press made it possible--and easy--to spell out every letter of every word without additional effort. In fact, the creation of unique pieces of type to imitate abbreviations (and diphthongs) was an additional burden and expense. As Haebler explained, however, any attempt to break this rule resulted in products that could not be sold because they did not comply with the exacting standards of customers. Book buyers expected to see abbreviations, and printers gave them what they wanted. It was only in later years that they could depart from this imitation of manuscript models and take full advantage of the new technology. In a similar way, modern architects only gradually understood the new design possibilities made available by building materials such as steel and glass curtain-wall. The result is the sleek, geometric, glass-sheathed structures of today's skyline.

The Customer Is Always Right

Haebler described other characteristics of manuscripts that also were preserved by early printers. For example, the beginning of new chapters and other important sections of a book included oversized initial capital letters that were several lines high and projected into the body of the text and into the margins as well. Early printers--including Gutenberg--left large blank spaces in their columns of neat text so that calligraphers and illustrators could fill them in with large capital letters and decorations by hand. To this day, many incunabula contain all of their original blank spaces because rubricators were never hired to decorate them.

In a similar attempt to replicate the standards of hand-written text, books on medicine, law, and theology were printed using Gothic type almost exclusively. Otherwise, they could not be sold. Furthermore, when the art of printing spread from the German-speaking world to Italy in 1465 (with the arrival at Subiaco of German printers Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz), Roman letters--the ancestor of our Times Roman font--were used for the first time instead of Gothic letters. Roman type became the necessary standard--in Italy--for all printed works of philosophy, literature, science, art, and authors from classical antiquity. It suited the aesthetic tastes of the learned men of Italy, who had imbibed a humanistic Renaissance education and had an appreciation for ancient Roman inscriptions. Again, the customer always came first.

Below is an example of what is now considered the perfected form of Roman type, printed in 1478 by Nicolaus Jenson in Venice (from Plutarch's Lives, or Vitae illustrium virorum).

Below is an example of Gothic type, printed in 1480 also by Nicolaus Jenson in Venice (from Antoninus Florentinus, Summa theologica, part IV).

In contrast to the sensitivity of these early printers to the preferences of their customers, the 'products' and 'services' of government agencies are usually provided in abysmal fashion or are forced upon the public under threat of a penalty. Next time you are compelled to 'contribute' to any state bureaucracy, remember the early printers and ruminate on what has been lost.

Epitaph for a Genuine Benefactor

It is not surprising that Gutenberg's name faded from memory shortly after his invention. His Bible is not dated, and it does not mention him by name. In fact, Gutenberg's connection with his Bible was only recovered many years later and after much research and controversy. Nonetheless, a rector of the University of Paris, Professor Guillaume Fichet, wrote an early testimony to Gutenberg on December 31, 1470, just a few years after Gutenberg's death. Can anyone say anything remotely similar about NASA and its pseudo-accomplishments?

'Not far from the city of Mainz, there appeared a certain Johann whose surname was Gutenberg, who, first of all men, devised the art of printing, whereby books are made, not by a reed, as did the ancients, nor with a quill pen, as do we, but with metal letters, and that swiftly, neatly, beautifully. Surely this man is worthy to be loaded with divine honors by all the Muses, all the arts, all the tongues of those who delight in books, and is all the more to be preferred to gods and goddesses in that he has put the means of choice within reach'of mortals devoted to culture. That great Gutenberg has discovered things far more pleasing and more divine, in carving out letters in such a fashion that whatever can be said or thought can by them be written down at once and transcribed and committed to the memory of posterity.' (Translation: James Thorpe)

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.