On or about this date – some sources cite February 24, others February 23 – in 1455, a watershed event in human history occurred. There was no upheaval, no violent conflict, nor even much note taken of the event at the time, yet it arguably changed the world more profoundly than any other single event of the last millennium. In the town of Mainz, Germany, the workshop of goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg began the production of the renowned Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible to distinguish it from a later Gutenberg production, the 36-line Bible.) This edition produced a rather small run of copies by later standards – perhaps some 200 copies, of which 180 survive – over the course of about a year. But that represented an unimaginable advance in information technology. From the very dawn of the written word until Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press, all written words were produced laboriously by hand. The cliche of scribes laboring for years to produce a single volume are quite authentic. A well-staffed scriptorium might produce one copy of The Bible in a year’s time. Gutenberg started a revolution!
Gutenberg’s Bible was not the first printed item his workshop produced, but it was the first full book. Very quickly the news of Gutenberg’s invention spread across Europe, and within twenty years every major urban center had printing presses operating. The impact of this revolution is literally incalculable. Books suddenly became affordable to private citizens, where previously only large corporate entities such as monasteries and universities could afford them. The situation is rather analogous to the more rapid evolution of computers: originally only big businesses, governments, and universities could afford the immense investment in early computers. When microcomputers hit the market, they were still very much a luxury item. (Today, of course, it seems that everyone has a computer!)
Within a generation a profound cultural change swept across Europe. The printed word meant that consistent, accurate copies of information could be widely disseminated across Europe, and the effect was to vastly increase the rate of learning and development within Europe. By the year 1500, virtually every piece of literature from classical antiquity had been produced in a printed book. More profoundly, new works were being printed. In the days of hand-written texts, there was not a notable demand for newly written books; teachers simply passed along their knowledge to their students through the spoken word, scientists communicated personally through letters. But with printing, the demand for recognizable expertise rose, and with it the notion of the value of authorship. The printing press is responsible in a real and direct way for the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution which followed. It also contributed enormously to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. (Ironically, among the very first printed texts produced by Gutenberg’s press were Papal Indulgences, which Martin Luther specifically condemned in his famous 95 theses. Luther’s 95 theses were widely distributed in printed broadsheets, forerunner to modern newspapers.)
Gutenberg certainly did not invent the press itself, for screw presses to produce wine and olive oil had been used since the days of antiquity. That basic design required little modification to serve as a printing press. It is thought that some sort of printing press had been employed to produce copper plate or woodblock prints of single sheet documents well before Gutenberg’s time. Gutenberg is also not the first individual in history to conceive of movable type, an honor which, as seems so often to be the case, apparently belongs to the Chinese, inventor Bi Sheng creating clay type stamps about 450 years before Gutenberg.) But Gutenberg’s uniquely valuable contribution was to combine the press with practical movable type. His knowledge of metallurgy led him to create cast metal type, using lead, tin, and antimony, which remained the essential “typemetal” until modern offset printing replaced handset type in the 19th century. It is not known if Gutenberg invented the punch-cut method of producing type, as was long supposed, but it is certain that he used metal type. He also developed more suitable oil-based inks, also a long-standing standard in the industry.
Gutenberg did not profit from his invention, however: his financial backers sued and won control of his workshop (I am always fascinated about how much of the documentation from medieval days is from court cases!) In later life he was awarded a small pension by the Archbishop of Mainz. It was not until many years after his death that the impact of his invention was truly recognized, and his gravesite was forgotten and lost. Today there are many monuments and statues commemorating Gutenberg and his contribution to the advance of human society.
The most enduring monument to Gutenberg must, of course, be the printed book. It is fitting that Gutenberg’s first great project was to print The Bible. A very widely quoted fact is that The Bible is the best-seller of all time, which it is, hands-down. Less well known is that it remains the best-seller year after year even today. Last year about 25 million Bibles were sold in the United States, in a huge variety of different editions and translations. (By comparison, the latest Harry Potter book has sold some 10 million copies.) Annual expenditure on Bibles in the United States is estimated at more than half a billion dollars. Spreading The Good News is good business! Forty-seven percent of Americans claim to read The Bible daily, and ninety-one percent of U.S. households have at least one copy on hand, with the astonishing average of four copies for each household! Gutenberg would be pleased with the trend he started, I would guess. But as it was for Gutenberg, Bible publishing remains an often unprofitable enterprise, for the production is expensive and the retail margins are low. Gutenberg might take some small satisfaction in that fact as well.
Flower Mound, Texas
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. — Ray Bradbury