Johannes Gutenberg: Used Car Salesman

I’ve been going through some of my old posts. I know, I know. I don’t update very much anymore, but there was a time – I assure you,  dear reader! – when I updated this blog frequently. I had a lot of free time at work. I can say that now.

Going through my posts made me realize two things:

1. I come off as really, really awkward on this blog.

2. I have omitted a massively important post.

I have decided that rectifying the latter takes priority over rectifying the former. So, readers, here you are: the post I wanted to smack myself for failing to write.


See what I did there? I made that title bold to get you all excited. I bet it worked. I bet you’re on the edge of your seat. Well, strap yourself in, because we’re in for a ride full of potholes.

This terrible analogy is supposed to mean that there’s a lot of stuff missing, and that a lot of what I draw from for this post is nothing but informed speculation. The truth is, no one knows very much about Mr. Gutenberg. The Wikipedia page is not nearly as long as I would like it to be. I think this is because the sad truth is that Johannes Gutenberg was a nobody for most of his life. He was Joe Average. Modern-day Gutenberg probably would have loved The Big Bang Theory. Bazinga!

Gutenberg may have looked like this.
Gutenberg may have looked like this.

Little Johannes was born in Mainz sometime in the late-1390s. His parents, Freile zum Gensfleisch and Else Wirick zum Gutenberg, seem to have been of the upper-middle sort. According to John H. Lienhard, Papa Gutenberg worked with the ecclesiastical mint. This, Lienhard importantly points out, means that our boy Johannes grew up knowing the fine art of makin’ dolla’.

Maybe this is why Johannes ended up being a bit of scumbag.

In 1436, a lady named Ellewibel (family, why didn’t you love me enough to give me a name like Ellewibel?!) sued Gutenberg, claiming that he had promised to marry her daughter. While there’s no actual record of Gutenberg ever having made this promise, I’m siding with the women because Gutenberg does not seem like he was a particularly nice or reliable fellow. In 1437, he was sued for insulting a witness in the 1436 trial. And, in 1439, he was sued again, this time for failing to pay back a loan that he and his recently-deceased partner had taken to fund their startup venture. The cadaver’s brother was the one who had issued them the loan.

This startup venture, I should mention, included ripping off pilgrims. Some scholars believe that Gutenberg was selling indulgences – “Get Out of Jail Free” cards for sinners – and yes, there are records of Gutenberg selling these things. Some other scholars believe that Gutenberg was selling mirrors that allowed pilgrims to capture the magic that emanated from religious relics. The mirrors acted like cameras, taking sort-of-photos that the pilgrims could then show to their loved ones when the healing powers of the relics were needed. I know what you’re thinking: both of these items sound like surefire winners. How could business fail?

Or he may have looked like this.
Or he may have looked like this.

In Gutenberg’s zeal for mirror-making, he completely miscalculated the date of the pilgrimage he was supplying, and ended up having no one to sell his holy mirrors to. Since he made no money, he could not pay back his loan. So this cadaver’s brother sues him. Interestingly, this lawsuit seems to indicate a project that sounds a lot like the development of a wooden hand press with movable type. Gutenberg, victim of karma, lost the case, leaving a Mr. Jörg Dritzehn to become the new owner of what may have been the first attempt at his printing press.

Now, I want to get something straight before we go any further. Gutenberg is often cited as the inventor of the printing press and, sure, he did invent a pretty neat wooden hand press that seems to have been based on contemporary wine press technology. However, we can’t forget that the Koreans and the Chinese did it first. Hundreds of years before Gutenberg had emerged from Else Wirick zum Gutenberg’s birth cavity, printing had been invented. Wooden type was very much in use. Gutenberg’s big claim to fame is actually his invention of metal moveable type, and his special ink that went along with it. These little pieces of metal type could be arranged in countless ways. And, when they wore out, they could be melted and recast into new little choking hazards. So, yeah. Let’s not get too wrapped up in our Eurocentrism here. Gutenberg did make something that was, and still is, hugely important, but the Korean and Chinese accomplishments are too often overshadowed.

Anyway, Gutenberg doesn’t give up after he loses his press to Dritzehn. Rather than learn from his money mistakes, he ends up borrowing money again. This time, he borrows a ridiculously massive sum from a Mr. Johann Fust sometime between 1445 and 1450, which gives him the financial means to build his printing press and start a small printing business. The business probably got its start in indulgences, but pretty soon we see evidence that the famous 42-Line/Gutenberg Bible is in the works.

Or even this. Nobody knows. The only certainty seems to be the two-pronged beard.
Or even this. Nobody knows. The only certainty seems to be the two-pronged beard.

I’ll write more about the Gutenberg Bible in another post. For now, all that you really need to know is that the Gutenberg Bible was not a small project. It was also not a cheap project. After all, one can’t just sell part of a book. Gutenberg couldn’t start making any real money on the book until the finished product was in his hands. And that took tons of time, and tons of hard labour. Even when the finished product was in his hands, it was hella pricey. Moreover, Gutenberg had to try to convince a bunch of people steeped in the manuscript tradition that getting a printed book would be worth their while. So, even though some of the Gutenberg Bibles were completed by 1455, and were sold at that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, Gutenberg was still depending on hopeful private investors like Johann Fust, who just had to wait to make their profits.

Evidently, Johann Fust was not a patient man. In 1456, he foreclosed his deal with Gutenberg, leading to Gutenberg’s printing business being handed over to him. For (at least) the second time, Gutenberg had lost his press to a loan.

Gutenberg died a poor man, with little but lawsuits to give us hints as to who he was. Yet, he is credited as the inventor of one of the most important technologies in the history of humanity. Despite seeming like a bit of a scumbag, Gutenberg is largely to thank for making the wide spread of Western ideas possible.

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