Today, a detective story about the invention of the
printing press. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Johann Gutenberg was born in
Mainz sometime during the 1390s. His given name was
Gensfliesch zur Laden. Gutenberg was the name of
his wealthy father's house. His father worked with
the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing
the trade of goldsmithing.
Most of Gutenberg's early life is a mystery. His
father moved to Strasburg in 1411. After that, he
first surfaces in a 1436 lawsuit. A lady is suing
him for breach of promise.
A 1439 lawsuit was even more interesting. Relatives
of Gutenberg's recently deceased partner, Andreas
Dritzehn, sued him. Gutenberg and Dritzehn had
borrowed a lot of money for a development venture.
Here the story grows interesting indeed. You see,
Gutenberg didn't produce his great Bible until
twenty years later -- until 1456.
Gutenberg and Dritzehn's first venture had been to
produce items for sale to pilgrims on the way to
Aix-la-Chapelle. Some historians believe those
articles included printed indulgences.
But we don't know for sure. They shrouded the
venture in secrecy. The court records refer to
purchases of lead and printing materials -- to
forms and pieces that make sense only in terms of
printing with movable type.
By now Gutenberg's credit had worn thin in
Strasburg. So he moved back to Mainz and began
borrowing again. Finally, he borrowed 800 guilders
from one Johann Fust. 800 guilders was a huge lot
of money, enough to buy 100 cows or several small
That was in 1449. In 1456, he finished the great
Bible. By then he'd run his debt over 2000
guilders. That was the year that printing with
movable type turned the known world upside down. It
was the year Gutenberg redirected human history.
It was also the year Fust foreclosed on the now
aging Gutenberg. Historians have weighed Fust's
action ever since. He may have committed one of the
smarmiest business deals in history.
But maybe not. The secretive Gutenberg was probably
diverting borrowed money into a separate venture.
He was positioning himself to buy out Fust. More
than likely, two hardball businessmen went nose to
nose, with little love lost, and Fust won.
So Fust got the business. He got Gutenberg's superb
technician, Peter Schoeffer, as well. In 1457, Fust
and Schoeffer put out a Latin Psalter that
Gutenberg had been working on secretly -- even
before the Bible. From then on their names, not
Gutenberg's, grace the lovely books they produced.
Still, it is the wild, unstable inventor Gutenberg
that we thank for the gift of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Scholderer, V., Johann Gutenberg: The
Inventor of Printing. London: The Trustees
of the British Museum, 1963.
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 216, 628,
756, 894, and 992.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Fust and Schoeffer's Printers' Device from Juan
de Torquema's Exposito Psalteri, 1476
From Appleton's Cyclopaedia
of Applied Mechanics, 1892
A typical Gutenberg-style press
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search
Episodes | Index |