1. If you are reading this right now, you are taking part in the wonder of literacy. Because of printed words, people can send information across both time and space. Ideas are put in writing and sent to readers across thousands of miles and years. Because of writing, the words of distant people can influence events, offer knowledge, and change the world. Much of the credit for the development of this phenomenon can be attributed to one man.
2. Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, better known as Johannes Gutenberg, was born in the German city of Mainz. Though most of Gutenberg’s early life is a mystery, historians believe that he studied at the University of Erfurt in 1418 and spent much of his young adult life practicing the profession of his father: goldsmithing. Gutenberg borrowed money from investors in 1439 and found himself in financial trouble.
3. In the year 1439 the city in which Gutenberg lived was planning to exhibit its large collection from Emperor Charlemagne (a famous ruler who had united much of Western Europe around 800 AD). The exhibit was expected to bring many visitors to the town, so Gutenberg took investments and created polished metal mirrors which were to be sold to the visitors (it was a common belief at that time that mirrors were able to capture holy light from religious relics). The mirrors which Gutenberg produced probably would have sold well, but due to severe flooding the event was delayed by one year. The impatient investors demanded that Gutenberg return their investments, but he had already spent the money on producing the unsaleable mirrors. He was trapped in a difficult situation. Gutenberg decided to share his greatest secret with them.
4. This secret would forever change the world, all of history, and even the process of keeping history. It’s been argued that Gutenberg’s idea was one of the greatest of all mankind. This one idea would lead to the spread of countless others. It would play a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution. This idea would bring learning to the masses. Gutenberg had created the mechanical printing press with movable type.
5. Before the spread of Gutenberg’s idea, literature was handwritten. That means that each copy of the bible and all of its 73 books were tediously hand scribed, and this was done before the invention of the ballpoint pen. Given the amount of detail that went into each text, creating a single copy of a bible could take years. Because of the effort that went into producing them, books were extremely rare and valuable. Because of the value of books, there was little reason for common people to learn to read or write since it was unlikely that they would ever handle a book in their lifetimes. Gutenberg’s invention would change that. His printing press allowed literature to be produced on a mass scale. His movable metal type could be arranged once to form a page, and he could print the page again and again.
6. The first major text that Gutenberg produced was a 42 line copy of the bible. Scholars estimate that Gutenberg produced between 165 and 185 of these bibles, which sold out almost immediately. Most copies went to churches and universities, though one was sold to a private individual. Copies are known to have sold for 30 florins (about three years of wages for a clerk at the time), which may seem expensive but was much cheaper than a hand produced copy. Purchasing a Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s would have been a good investment if you and your descendants were able to maintain it. Only twenty-one complete Gutenberg Bibles exist today and the last one traded hands in 1987 for 4.9 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a book at the time.
7. Gutenberg’s brilliant idea would soon change the world, but in the short term he bungled a large and risky investment. He found himself in financial trouble once again and was sued by one of his investors, who accused Gutenberg of mismanaging money meant for the production of books. The courts ruled against Gutenberg and he lost the shop that he had created. He was effectively bankrupt.
8. Though he had failed as a businessman, the technologies that he had created spread rapidly. As these printing technologies spread, news and books began to travel much faster than previously possible. The world has not been the same since. Though Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his own lifetime, he made the world a much richer place.