Archive for Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thanks, Gutenberg

January 27, 2011

Recently I was reading a list of the greatest inventors and inventions in the long history of the world. Glancing over the names, it is a hard task to disagree with any of the choices: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, to name a few men who have changed the world.

Of course, there have been modern innovations such as computers, television and radio that have contributed to our modern lifestyle. Now, we have instant entertainment and communications. Certainly, we live in a wonderful world with ease and efficiency. We know what is happening around the world in just seconds.

However, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, I believe the greatest invention that has changed the world radically is the creation of moveable type and the printing press. In case you’ve forgotten, the art of printing was developed by Johannes Gutenberg, who was a German goldsmith.

Reproduction of books prior to the invention of moveable type was painstaking. In those days, all books were reproduced by hand. In monasteries, monks copied manuscripts and normally the text was read to them. This left the door open for mistakes and wasn’t accurate. I had a professor in college who wondered how many mistakes were made after the 3 p.m. wine break.

Scholars have discovered many discrepancies in ancient books, and some of them may have been editorial comments added by the scribe. Quite simply, the process of producing books was slow, expensive and not very accurate.

Relatively little is known about Gutenberg’s early life. His family was relatively well off financially, and his father was a craftsman and an official in the government mint. Undoubtedly, Gutenberg was a skilled craftsman and may have been the official goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, Germany. He also served as an expert witness in forgery cases.

Several accounts list his year of birth in 1398, and he probably had a number of surnames and names. Gutenberg was probably selected because he was living in the city. About the only information I could find about his youth was that he enlisted in the militia and listed his profession as “goldsmith.” He probably wasn’t all that successful in business, or life for that matter.

In 1439, he was living in Strasbourg and had lost considerable money when he built and sold mirrors, which were supposed to display the aura of holy objects. In this time frame, he came up with the idea of metal, moveable type. Individual letters were handcrafted and assembled into words and sentences. Through the use of pressure and petroleum-based ink, which he also developed, he was able to mass-produce pages of written material. He is credited with printing the first Bible using moveable type.

While he never became wealthy, in 1465 he was awarded an annual stipend of 2,180 gilders, a yearly supply of wine and one new suit of clothes, which he wore to court functions.

He died in 1468 and the church and cemetery where he was buried were destroyed. Now, no one knows where he is buried.

His contribution to the world is immense. Incidentally, his basic method of printing, known as “letterpress,” was used until the last couple of decades. Printing was improved with the invention of the linotype. Now computerized typesetting has relegated the letterpress methods to the archives of history.

Gutenberg made a huge, but largely forgotten, contribution to the world.

The fact that you are reading this newspaper now can be traced to Gutenberg and his moveable type and printing press.


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