Gutenberg! The Musical!“Gutenberg” isn’t just the name of the printing-press guy and the public domain collection.

Now there’s a New York show, Gutenberg! The Musical!. And a short Gutenberg bio shows up in Characters of the Information and Communication Industry, a new book.

The author is Prof. Richard Bellaver, a communications and human factors expert at Ball State University. You may recall his e-book-related articles. Excerpted from the new book, Prof. Bellaver’s Gutenberg material follows.

Chapter 1: In the Beginning

By Richard F. Bellaver

Bellaver bookUntil the invention of printing, the public had to be satisfied with whatever information it was given by official sources, or it had to make do with hearsay and rumor. The early evidence of an official means of spreading news dates from 59 BC in Rome, where a daily gazette called Acta Diurna (Daily Events) was published. Attributed to Julius Caesar, it contained coverage of social and political events: elections, public appointments, government edicts, treaties, trials and executions, military news, births, marriages, and deaths. The Acta Diurna was written in manuscript and displayed in prominent places in Rome. A similar approach to publishing news was undertaken in China from the 6th to the 20th century. How did these early means of making information available lead to the publication and distribution of communications that we know today? Who was the key character that got it started?

One of the fun activities of turning to the new millennium (Y2K concerns forgotten) was to see the lists of people who were considered “most influential. The authors of 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium listed Johannes Gutenberg as the number one man. Many other rankings including one from USA Today, a less comprehensive but more widely read list, also had Herr Gutenberg as number one. His invention has been ranked with the greatest events in the history of the education of the world. The reason for the high placing was usually stated as the effect that reading has had on the world. Of course, Gutenberg didn’t invent reading or even movable type, but he gets the credit. There are even several pictures of Gutenberg available. Not many other mid-fifteenth century people are that well remembered. Maybe this was an early result of media influence? What made Gutenberg successful, and remembered? I think, as we will see in other instances throughout history, it wasn’t the invention it was several other economic factors coming to play.

Johannes Gensfleisch Gutenberg (1400? -1468), was a German printer and pioneer in the use of movable type, and is identified as the European to print with handset type cast in molds. He was a man who lived to be at least 68 years old according to some and perhaps even over seventy. Much of what historian’s know about Gutenberg is very scant due to the lack of literacy during the early to mid 1400’s. However German court records show a great deal of Gutenberg’s history.

The start of printing was most important because it led to the development of mass produced economical books, as we know them. To understand the modern book one should understand some of the history behind the medieval manuscript. An entirely non-mechanical process was the first form of reproducing print material. In developing the idea for mass print production, Gutenberg had to consider what elements were required for improving a scribe’s work. Scribes were men who acted not only as copyists but also as editors and interpreters of the Bible and of the Law. The most primitive printer, like the public to whom they sold their books, had learned to read in pen-written volumes and knew no other kind. The printer’s problem was to devise a method for producing in quantity a copy already standardized. Up to the 15th Century, all European books were pen written.

It is difficult for researchers to study the life of Gutenberg because there are many uncertainties. There are great lapses in the documentation of his life. “Johann Gutenberg will always remain a shadowy figure, more often considered not as a historical individual but as a cultural hero and a convenient symbol for what is sometimes called ‘print culture.'” Scholars of Gutenberg have derived their own conclusions and theories of this innovator’s life. Many of the sources remarking on Johann Gutenberg’s life hint of a sense of mystery. “No fully satisfactory English-language biography of Gutenberg has yet appeared; too often, writers have tended to follow the lead of earlier scholars in preference to examining the primary evidence and coming to their own conclusions.” In order to observe his life closely one must look at the documented information and forgo the speculation.

Uncertainty regarding the details of Gutenberg’s life begins with his birth year. Gutenberg’s year of birth is unknown, but the most cited date is June 24, 1400 with a range from 1394-1406. His full name is Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. He was born and raised in the city of Mainz, Germany. The names of Johann were actually the names of the houses were Johann’s family lived and not the family name. Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden was Johann Gutenberg’s father. At this time in history it was custom to pick up the name of the home in which you were living. Friele inherited a farm; part of the Gutenberg house and this is how Gutenberg was attached to the family. He also received income from the interest on a loan made by Mainz to the town of Wetzlar in 1382. His father’s occupation was a Companion of the Mint. It is said that Friele married beneath himself when he married Elsie Wirich. Although she was a property owner, her father was a shopkeeper. Due to this mix in marriage Johann, along with his brother and sister, were not able to inherit their father’s position as Companion of the Mint controlled by the archbishop. This would mean there would be no easy way to the upper-class life.

Although there is no information regarding Gutenberg’s early education it is speculated that he learned Latin and more than likely attended school. It is uncertain if his education took place in the traditional St. Christopher’s church school or schools run by towns’ people.

The city of Mainz had many difficulties between the patricians and guildsmen. A major cause of strife was the refusal of the patricians to pay taxes. An act that furthered the resentment between the two parties was the creation of annuities by the patricians; that after a lump some payment were to be paid back at five percent every year for twenty years, Gutenberg was a recipient of these annuities. However, the plan did not work because the city was paying out more than they were receiving. This led to further problems between the patricians and guildsman. In 1411 the patricians left the city, as their ancestors did in the civil war of 1332. Johann’s family moved back and forth several times in and out of Mainz. His father died in 1419.

In 1420 Gutenberg was back in Mainz. He had little to be optimistic about, he had no property, no inherited fortune, and his annuities were at risk. “His mother’s shop keeping status excluded him from the ranks of patricians–thus from the business that would otherwise have provided him with the livelihood he needed.”

Throughout Gutenberg’s twenties he was facing issues such as the Black Death, the ever growing chance of social collapse and the threat of civil war, as well as, the frustration of the deprived life of a patrician that so easily could have been his. He was making very little money and unsatisfied with life. In 1429 he refused the archbishops offer for residence in Mainz and decided to move to Strasburg.

While in Strasburg around the year 1436 Gutenberg was sued for breach of promise of marriage and slander. The allegation concerning breach of promise was unsuccessful, and it is further believed that he was single his entire life. The slander charge involved a witness by the name of Clause Schott who presented evidence that angered Gutenberg. He called Schott names which led to Gutenberg paying a fine. This was the first of many court battles for the inventor.

Gutenberg’s success as a printer would have never occurred if it were not for the Chinese and their invention of paper. The papyrus plant, which grew along the banks of the River Nile in Egypt, furnished the first writing material used as a sheet or roll by the ancient Egyptians. Although papyrus was not true paper, the Egyptians used it for more than two thousand years until T’sai Lun, in China about the year 105 A.D., made paper from vegetable fibers. It obviously took considerable time before paper would be more common for use in publishing books. By the 1440’s paper, due to the Italians who discovered an economical production process, .was finally at a stage where it could be used to apply ink with a pen, brush or carved wooden block. Only then was it reasonable for Gutenberg to find a way to make suitable pieces of metal type.

Gutenberg was about thirty years of age when he first came into the public eye with his ability and his work. He had the knowledge of three distinct arts. The earliest one practiced was the polishing of stones and gems. The second was that of making mirrors. Gutenberg was not the inventor of latter art, but he seems to have been the first to practice it in Strasbourg. The third was the secret invention, which raised the expectation of his partners to a high degree of enthusiasm. Gutenberg’s partners in this new and mysterious art were Hans Riffe, the mayor of a neighboring town, Anthony Heilman, a lender of money, and Andrew Dritzehen, brother of the sheriff of the city of Strasbourg. One day they discovered Gutenberg working on a secret project. They begged to be included in this work, to be taught the new secret process, and to have a share in the profits. In 1438 Gutenberg and his new partners would set out on a project that held the key to the progress of mankind. Gutenberg converted a wine-press in preparation for the first experiments. Partners Dritzehen and Riffe worked hard from the early morning to late at night on various tasks assigned by Johannes. While Heilman contributed as a lender, he was also assigned various assignments from Gutenberg. Carefully and patiently, the four worked on every small detail of their tasks. Gutenberg, always the master, after showing them how wood blocks were cut and printed, explained to them his idea of making letters of metal that could be used to form words and sentences.

Gutenberg’s fast pace in the development of his new press was slowed in 1439 when partner Andrew Dritzehen died. Immediately following his death brother George filed suit (again a court record) against Johannes for money paid by his deceased brother Andrew and for a small partnership in the unnamed venture; or, as a replacement for this, to require Gutenberg to invest George with all his brother’s rights in the partnership. The trades which Gutenberg taught his pupils and associates, included gem-polishing, the manufacture of looking-glasses and the art of printing, as we learn from the records of a lawsuit. In these records, Gutenberg appears distinctly as technical originator and manager of the business. Concerning the “new art”, one witness states that, in his capacity of goldsmith, he had supplied in 1436 “printing requisites” to the value of 100 gulden; mention is also made of a press constructed by Konrad Saspach, a turner, with peculiar appliances (screws). The suit was therefore obviously concerned with experiments in typography, but no printed matter that can be traced to these experiments has so far come to light. George Dritzehen was refused his request after sound testimony from Gutenberg, who the judge believed was a man of integrity. Following the trial Gutenberg returned to his dream of movable metal type. However, as time passed by so did the investors’ interest. Within a short period of time each partner/investor lost hope for Gutenberg and pulled their money from the invention.

Gutenberg was much stressed at this point and felt the need to change pace. He decided to take refuge in a nearby monastery. The Bishop of Strasbourg permitted Johannes a few days stay so that he could interact with the monks. The slow activity of the monastery allowed Gutenberg his first chance in years to relax and watch the dedicated men work in the scriptorium. It was then he realized he must continue his dream and acquired a loan from the Bishop to continue his work. Before printing could actually begin, there were several problems that needed to be solved. A metal harder than lead needed to be used for the types and he was to find a method of molding narrow letters on a narrow body, and wide letters on a wide body. He needed to invent a way of making all letters uniform height. The key to this new method was not as is generally believed, the discovery of the value of movable types, for movable letters had been known and used for centuries. It was in the mechanism for making the types, the mechanism by which they could be made more cheaply and more durable than letters engraved in wood, and with accuracy as to the body that they could be combined and interchanged with facility. Simple enough as the mechanism for this work may have seemed to be, it was however, a problem Gutenberg had labored with for years.

In 1466 he finally combined lead and tin to form an alloy better suited for wear and repeatability. A manuscript book was the first model or test production and set his untiring mind at ease in light of such a grand accomplishment. Perhaps the second most important element in Gutenberg’s success aside from paper was suitable ink. “Gutenberg, again through trial and error, developed such an ink of the right viscosity able to transfer a light film to paper from metal surfaces. The working properties of this ink were different from that used for wood block printing.

It was not long before Gutenberg’s invention was denounced as a practice of deplorable evil. (This has to be one of the earliest recorded revolts against mechanization.) The Bishop of Strasbourg issued a statement defending Johannes Gutenberg and his invention putting to rest numerous fears of the scribes and guilds. Gutenberg decided to leave the suburbs of Strasbourg and his many friends and colleagues. He made his decision based upon all his troubles in Strasbourg and his gut feeling to return home. Johannes knew he could set up shop on his own family property, so he transported all of his tools and equipment back to Mainz on horseback. About the same time Gutenberg made his decision to return to Mainz, he received word that his sister Else had died.

He located a suitable place near the Rhine, and set up shop with the mechanical equipment he transported by horseback. A benevolent relative loaned him money for a printing press and the purchase of metals with which to cast additional type characters. Back at work with a fairly well equipped shop and eager apprentices being taught the trade as helpers, Gutenberg had set two goals: to make enough profits to pay for the back taxes owed to the tax collector in Strasbourg; to accomplish his fondest dream to begin work on the greatest book of all, the Bible.

The first work to be produced in the new establishment was a complete first edition of the Donatus (Life of Virgil), later followed by a second and third addition. His aim, technically and esthetically so extremely difficult, was the mechanical reproduction of the characters used in the manuscripts, i.e. the books of the time. The works printed by Gutenberg plainly prove that the types used in them were made by a casting process fundamentally the same as used into the twentieth century. The letter-patterns were cut on small steel rods termed patrices, and the dies thus made were impressed on some soft metal, such as copper, producing the matrices, which were cast in the mould in such a manner as to form the “face” and “body” of the type at one operation. The printing type represents therefore a multiplicity of cast reproductions of the original die, or patrix. In addition to this technical process of type-founding, Gutenberg found himself confronted with a problem hardly less difficult, namely, the copying of the beautiful calligraphy found in the books of the fifteenth century, constantly bearing in mind that it must be possible to engrave and to cast the individual forms, since the types, when set, must be substantially replicas of the model. The genius of Gutenberg found a brilliant solution to this problem in all its complicated details. Even in the earliest types he made (e.g. in the Calendar for 1448), one can recognize not only the splendid reproduction of the actual forms of the original handwriting, but also the extremely artistic remodeling of individual letters necessitated by technical requirements. In other words, we see the work of a calligraphic artist of the highest order. He applied the well-tested rules of the calligraphist’s art to the casting of types, observing in particular the rudimentary principle of always leaving the same space between the vertical columns of the text. Consequently Gutenberg prepared two markedly different forms of each letter, the normal separate form, and the compound or linked form, which, being joined closely to the type next to it avoids, gaps. It is significant that this unique kind of letter is to be found in only four types, and these four are associated with Gutenberg. No typographer in the fifteenth century was able to follow the ideal of the inventor, and consequently research attributes to Gutenberg types of this character, namely, the two Bible and the two Psalter types. Especially in the magnificent design and in the technical preparation of the Psalter of 1457 we recognize the pure, ever-soaring inventive genius of Gutenberg that achieved so marked a technical improvement in the two-colored Psalter initials. The precision and richness that had now become possible in color-printing effected a substantial advance over the standard displayed in other editions.

Gutenberg formed another partnership, with the German merchant and moneylender Johann Fust, and set up a press on which he probably started printing the large Latin Bible associated with his name, as well as some smaller books and leaflets. The Bible, known variously as the Gutenberg Bible, Mazarin Bible, or 42-Line Bible, was completed sometime between 1450 and 1456. German printer Peter Schöffer, Fust’s son-in-law and Gutenberg’s apprentice, may have helped to print the work. Fust’s demands for repayment of the money he had invested in the enterprise led to a lawsuit in 1455, and Gutenberg subsequently surrendered his share of the firm

Gutenberg’s invention spread rapidly after the political catastrophe of 1462 (the conquest of the city of Mainz by Adolf of Nassau). It met in general with a ready, and an enthusiastic reception in the centers of culture. The names of more than 1000 printers, mostly of German origin, have come down to us from the fifteenth century. In Italy we find well over 100 German printers, in France 30, in Spain 26. Many of the earliest printers outside of Germany had learned their art in Mainz, where they were known as “goldsmiths”. Among those who were undeniably pupils of Gutenberg, and who probably were also assistants in the Gutenberg-Fust printing house were (besides Schäffer), Numeister, Keffer, and Ruppel. There were others in Rome and Venice.

Following his break with Fust, Gutenberg continued printing, either at Mainz or in the nearby town of Eltvile. In 1465 the German statesman Adolph II, archbishop of Mainz and elector of Nassau, became Gutenberg’s patron, presumably in recognition of his achievement. Little more is known of Gutenberg. We are aware that his declining years were spent in the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, to whose suite he was appointed in 1465. The distinction thus conferred on him carried with it allowances of clothing and other necessities, which saved him from actual want. In all likelihood he died at Mainz towards the end of 1467 or the beginning of 1468, and was buried probably as a tertiary in the Franciscan church, no longer in existence.

Other than the court records, a cloud of deep obscurity conceals the life of the inventor, his personality, the time and place of his invention, and particularly the part he personally took in the production of the printed works that have come down to us from this period. On the other hand, expert research has thrown much light on the printed works connected with the name of Gutenberg, and has established more definitely the nature of his invention. Mainly from the technical examination of the impressions of the earliest Gutenberg productions, the “Poem of the Last Judgment” and the “Calendar for 1448”, it has been shown that he effected substantial improvements in methods of printing and in its technical auxiliaries, especially in the printer’s ink and in the building of printing presses. Of course he had to invent neither letter cutting, nor the die, nor the mode of obtaining impressions from the die. All these had been long known, and were in common use in Gutenberg’s time, as is shown by the steel dies of the goldsmiths and bookbinders, as well as the punches used for stamping letters and ornamental designs in the striking of coins and seals.

During his lifetime Gutenberg must have had a clearer idea than any man living of the value of his invention, and of the work that could be done by it. Like the prophets of old, he too had visions–visions of the marvelous future it had in store for mankind, and the wheels which his type put in motion. Perhaps in those visions he heard the clash and roar of countless presses whirling away each day, and night, and also on Sundays with scarcely any rest. Did he see the books, the newspapers, the libraries, and schools, which his art had created? Gutenberg’s aspirations and thoughts seemed always for the betterment of his fellow men. Gutenberg did not long enjoy the leisure of his retired life to ponder over the fulfillment of his dream. One day in February 1468, he quietly fell asleep with his favorite book on his lap, never again to waken. He was buried in a Franciscan churchyard in Mainz.

Adam Gelthus, a relative, who mortgaged his house to lend Gutenberg money, put a tablet in the church of St. Francis. It read: “In perpetual commemoration of Gutenberg, as the inventor of the art of printing, deserver of the highest honor from every nation and tongue.” The purpose of his commemoration was to properly identify Gutenberg’s invention as the art of printing. Compared with other methods this was the first; there was no second. So one of the earliest characters of the information and communications industry and probably the most famous was Johannes Gutenberg.

(c) 2006 by Richard Bellaver
Published by AuthorHouse

Inevitable reaction: Notice the efforts of Gutenberg to build on an older medium—manuscripts? And the demonization of his new technology? Not to mention disagreements over credits for inventions? Some things never change. – D.R.


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