Johannes Gutenberg

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Johannes Gutenberg : biography

c. 1398 – 3 February 1468

Gutenberg remains a towering figure in the popular image. In 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg the No. 1 most influential person of the second millennium on their "Biographies of the Millennium" countdown. In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium.

In space, he is commemorated in the name of the asteroid 777 Gutemberga.

A French opera on his life, by Philippe Manoury, was staged in Strasbourg in September 2011.

Printing press

Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen: in 1439 the city was planning to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but the event was delayed by one year due to a severe flood and the capital already spent could not be repaid. When the question of satisfying the investors came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a "secret". It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light".

Until at least 1444 he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogast parish. It was in Strasbourg in 1440 that Gutenberg is said to have perfected and unveiled the secret of printing based on his research, mysteriously entitled Kunst und Aventur (art and enterprise). It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, quite possibly for a printing press or related paraphernalia. By this date, Gutenberg may have been familiar with intaglio printing; it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of Playing Cards.

By 1450, the press was in operation, and a German poem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schöffer, who became Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Schöffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and is believed to have designed some of the first typefaces.

Gutenberg’s workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profit-making enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454–55.

In 1455 Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 copies were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.

Court case

Some time in 1456, there was a dispute between Gutenberg and Fust, and Fust demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of misusing the funds. Meanwhile the expenses of the Bible project had proliferated, and Gutenberg’s debt now exceeded 20,000 guilders. Fust sued at the archbishop’s court. A November 1455 legal document records that there was a partnership for a "project of the books," the funds for which Gutenberg had used for other purposes, according to Fust. The court decided in favor of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles.

Thus Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt, but it appears he retained (or re-started) a small printing shop, and participated in the printing of a Bible in the town of Bamberg around 1459, for which he seems at least to have supplied the type. But since his printed books never carry his name or a date, it is difficult to be certain, and there is consequently a considerable scholarly debate on this subject. It is also possible that the large Catholicon dictionary, 300 copies of 754 pages, printed in Mainz in 1460, may have been executed in his workshop.

Meanwhile, the Fust–Schöffer shop was the first in Europe to bring out a book with the printer’s name and date, the Mainz Psalter of August 1457, and while proudly proclaiming the mechanical process by which it had been produced, it made no mention of Gutenberg.

Later life

In 1462, during a conflict between two archbishops, Mainz was sacked by archbishop Adolph von Nassau, and Gutenberg was exiled. An old man by now, he moved to Eltville where he may have initiated and supervised a new printing press belonging to the brothers Bechtermünze.

In January 1465, Gutenberg’s achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by von Nassau. This honor included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as 2,180 litres of grain and 2,000 litres of wine tax-free. It is believed he may have moved back to Mainz around this time, but this is not certain.

Gutenberg died in 1468 and was buried in the Franciscan church at Mainz, his contributions largely unknown. This church and the cemetery were later destroyed, and Gutenberg’s grave is now lost.

In 1504, he was mentioned as the inventor of typography in a book by Professor Ivo Wittig. It was not until 1567 that the first portrait of Gutenberg, almost certainly an imaginary reconstruction, appeared in Heinrich Pantaleon’s biography of famous Germans.