gutenberg, failed entrepreneur -- 4/22/20

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston. Johannes Gutenberg did not invent movable type, but after careful study he did make it work efficiently. Like most research and development, it was a very expensive process, and it left him bankrupt:

"In 1450 ... Johannes Gutenberg entered into an agreement with one Johann Fust (sometimes spelled 'Faust'), a Mainzer goldsmith and guildsman, to borrow a staggering 800 Rheingulden at 6 percent interest. Gutenberg's sales pitch must have been convincing, for Fust would later testify that he himself had borrowed money in order to fund the loan.

"Gutenberg sank the money into his new workshop and promptly defaulted upon the interest payments. ... [T]wo years later, as recorded in the inevitable court judgment, [Fust went] on to lent Gutenberg another 800 Rheingulden on the condition that Gutenberg take on Fust's adopted son, Peter Schöffer, as his foreman. Gutenberg assented, Schöffer was hired, and Fust paid out the second loan. ...

"[T]he prize Gutenberg had dangled in front of his financier was, of course, the invention of movable type: the promise that a book could be replicated over and over again with minimal effort. In an era when a handwritten Bible commanded a price equivalent to a laborer's yearly wage, the ability to print an endless run of books must have appeared as a license to mint Rheingulden. ...

Gutenberg Bible

"Gutenberg's first book [Ars grammatica] survives only as parchment scraps pasted in the binding of other works, but the fifty or so partial copies that do exist reveal what must have been a truly radical item, even as it did its best to appear entirely ordinary. ... [I]n the mid-1450s, [Johannes Gutenberg wanted] to print and sell a Bible. Though he had not invented the idea of movable type, if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made it work -- that he systematically tackled each aspect of a finicky, delicate process until he had perfected it. ...

"The finished product was spectacular ... Gutenberg's Bible was as close to perfect as human hands could make it. ... Gutenberg's compositors had typeset more than 3 million characters to make up the Bible's 1,282 pages; the workshop's press had been driven home some 237,170 times to print almost 60,000 leaves of vellum and paper; and the 180-odd resultant Bibles were all spoken for, if not yet paid for in full. It was an incredible achievement, and it was snatched away from its chief architect almost immediately.

"Gutenberg's fall is related in a clinical manner by the so-called Helmasperger Notarial Instrument, a legal document dated November 6, 1455. On that day, in the refectory of a Franciscan friary in Mainz, Johann Fust presented himself to a notary named Ulrich Helmasperger to demand repayment of his delinquent loans and of five years' unpaid interest. ... The sum total owed to Fust...was 2,020 Rheingulden. ... [T]he precious presses, molds, matrices, and type of Gutenberg's shop passed into Fust's hands, along with the entire stock of 42-line Bibles.

"Barely two years after the Helmasperger judgment a new run of handsomely printed religious books emanated from Mainz. The so-called Mainz Psalters of 1457 and 1459 [by] the firm of Fust & Schöffer."



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 Keith Houston


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