5/8/13 - gutenberg loses his printing business

In today's selection -- when Johannes Gutenberg printed his 290 Bibles, they were an immediate sensation. But printing was a highly capital intensive business, so despite an invention with consequences as profound as any in history, Gutenberg lost his business to his financier Johann Fust and his career "sputtered out":

  Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library. Bought by James 
Lenox in 1847, it was the first copy to come to the United States.

"Neither Gutenberg nor any of his immediate followers could conceive of the streamlined mechanical print-like font appearance so familiar in the modem world. They strove, rather, to produce volumes identical to those the scribes had copied and illuminated for a millennium. Therefore, Gutenberg designed and manufactured 290 different, and, to the modem eye, ornate, typefaces of varying sizes for his Bible.

"Historians have determined from legal documents that by about 1454 he had manufactured six presses. Since each page contained approximately 2,750 characters, and at least two sides of a folio had to be set at anyone point, Gutenberg needed approximately 100,000 bits of cast type to keep the day-to-day process running smoothly. Further, to keep the six presses in operation, he had to hire at least two dozen typesetters and pressmen to finish the 230,760 impressions required to make 180 of the 1,282-page Bibles. Historians estimate that each press could make not much more than a dozen page impressions per hour, so this would take, allowing for some wastage, about two years. The 40 vellum copies consumed about 3,200 calf hides, and the 140 paper Bibles required the purchase of approximately 70,000 folio sheets, a massive expenditure in those days. ...

"Printing thus required a huge capital investment, magnified by the long time period separating the initial purchase of labor and material and the subsequent cash flows; this regularly led to litigation between the printer and his creditors. That Gutenberg had particular problems in this area is suggested by an earlier venture in the year 1438 or 1439, when he produced 32,000 mirrors for a pilgrimage to Aachen. As far as we know, these were of exemplary quality, the only problem being that the pilgrimage did not start until 1440. Gutenberg would need help with funding, and to his misfortune he turned to Johann Fust, a brilliant, ruthless financier. Fust knew that the Bibles' production would tie up his money for two years, but the selling prices of the Bibles -- fifty gulden for a vellum copy and twenty for a paper copy, at a time when a skilled craftsman earned about twenty-five per year -- meant that they would sell slowly and thus send Gutenberg into bankruptcy.

"Fust consequently demanded draconian terms for the project's financing: Immediately upon publication in 1455, he demanded that Gutenberg repay his loan, and when Gutenberg defaulted, the courts awarded Fust the presses and [letter] punches. Perhaps even more valuable to Fust was Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg's chief pressman and punch cutter, who brought with him a set of his most advanced punches and counterpunches. Schoeffer eventually married Fust's daughter Christine and inherited the business. The courts allowed Gutenberg to keep an older set of punches, but from this point on he was lacking his own presses, his best technician, and his most advanced punches, and his career sputtered out. (Nor did it help that a decade later Mainz, where he had returned after the catastrophic judgment, was sacked.)"

"Even viewed from more than five centuries later, Gutenberg's press represented a quantum leap in the ability of humankind to communicate, on a par with the invention of writing by the Sumerians and Egyptians, the invention of a workable alphabet by the early Semites and Phoenicians, and later the development of the telegraph, radio, television, and Internet. A few bits of historical data suffice: in 1480, the Florentine Ripoli Press could produce a print run of 1,025 quinternos (five sheets, usually of octavo, which would yield a document of eighty pages) for three florins; a scribe charged one florin for a single quinterno. Thus, even the first primitive presses cut the price of document production by an amazing 97 percent.

"Gutenberg's Bibles were a sensation, not so much because of the method of manufacture as because of their near-absolute mechanical perfection and the readability of the design, with its large type, forty-two-line page, and wide margins. One priest, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II, wrote to a colleague in Rome that he had met a 'remarkable man' who had shown him a section of a Gutenberg Bible that could be easily read without spectacles. These volumes soon became so treasured that an amazing 49 of the original 180 survive today, four of which are complete vellum copies. ...

"The sensation print caused and the increasing knowledge of its methods triggered a pell-mell rush that left a trail of financial ruin, particularly among those who did not fully appreciate the full extent of the start-up costs of machinery, labor, and paper. ... as with the crazes for railroad, radio, and Internet companies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, initial enthusiasm over the new presses, and the resulting production overcapacity, swamped the demand of a largely illiterate continent. Within several years of the introduction of print into Venice, eight of its twelve presses closed. Many small towns, which never should have seen print shops in the first place, lost theirs.

"Like all revolutionary technologies, the printing press outraged practitioners of the crafts it displaced -- in this case, scribes whose hopelessly uneconomical manuscripts suddenly became expensive curiosities. One scribal victim, Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk living on the Venetian island of Murano, implored the doge to punish the printers, for:

" 'They shamelessly print, at negligible cost, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer dies of hunger [and] a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness ... Writing indeed, which brings gold for us, should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods, unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses.' "


William J. Bernstein


Masters of the Word


Grove Press


Copyright 2013 by William J. Bernstein


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