Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1997:
GUTENBERG BIBLE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a new look at Gutenberg. 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.

So much is said about Gutenberg, and yet he printed only one book. Perhaps it's worth a new look at the book itself. It was a large Bible, almost identical to the best of the Bibles that scribes had been producing. A fine hand-written book sold for around eighty guilders, and that was roughly four times the annual pay of a la-borer.

Gutenberg printed nearly 150 copies of his Bible, most on paper, maybe forty on parchment. It cost around twenty guilders to print the paper ones -- two and a half times that for parchment. He looked to gross around fifteen million dollars in today's money.

The Bible was printed on large sheets of either fine paper that he imported from Italy, or on parchment. The sheets were then folded into pages. Historian John Man points out that a Gutenberg page had the classical golden section shape -- sixty-two percent longer than it was wide. The printed area also had that shape.

Gutenberg printed two columns on each page -- only about six words per line. Man points out that you and I might find that an-noying. But people didn't read 500 words a minute in silence, as we might. They read aloud -- at a third that rate. (Reading in silence was considered spooky when anyone tried it.)

Gutenberg hardly deviated from the hand-written manuscript style. He hired goldsmiths to cut almost three hundred characters. At the time, the alphabet had only 23 or 24 letters. But he had to do a much more than just doubling that for upper and lower case letters. For printing to look like handwriting, letters needed all kinds of ligatures, shorthand symbols, and diacritical marks.

Yet, despite his conservative design, Gutenberg surprises us by inventing right-hand justification -- something scribes couldn't do. In fact, he went further. When he hyphenated words, he extended the hyphen beyond the justification. That gave his columns a nice solid look. But it also meant he had to include an end space after each row that was not hyphenated. Later printers soon gave up on that costly nicety.

John Man adds up the magnitude of the project. He concludes that Gutenberg's 1286-page Bibles required six compositors, twelve printers, and six presses. At first they printed forty lines per page. Then, to save money, Gutenberg went to 41 lines by shaving his line spacing. He finally squeezed in 42 lines.

That was the rare moment when Gutenberg let cost-cutting trump beauty. He was a puzzle. Wholly intemperate perfectionism mixed with a fixation on profit. He took time off from printing his Bible to knock out a calendar and a large batch of indulgences -- two quick moneymakers. But, for Gutenberg, profit always appeared to aimed at just one thing -- funding his Bible.

That Bible appears to've been his oasis of creative beauty -- his true north, his magnet -- always located right at the center of a troubled raucous marketplace of a life.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


J. Man, Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2002). For more on Gutenberg, see Episode 753.


A typical page from Genesis in Gutenberg's Bible. Notice the hyphenation extending beyond the justified column and the hand drawn initial letter H, for which the typesetter has left space. Notice, too, how many additional characters may be found beyond the simple upper and lower case letters.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.