Gutenberg the Entrepreneur
“Find a need and fill it” is rule #1 for business start-ups. And that may have been what Gutenberg had in mind.
“It is often assumed that [Gutenberg] invented printing and then looked about for a major text to publish . . . and that he opted for the Bible. It could as well be the other way round,” speculates Christopher de Hamel. “Perhaps he perceived a market for Bibles and pondered how to supply them in large numbers.”
Gutenberg’s goal was to reproduce by the printing press the look of a handwritten manuscript. It was a huge financial investment. It is estimated that he would have had to create 100,000 individual pieces of type. What he made were beautiful replicas of the calligrapher’s skill. He also had to buy paper and vellum.
In 1450 Gutenberg borrowed 800 guilders from Johann Faust, a rich goldsmith, and in 1454 and again in 1455 he or an associate displayed copies of printed pages of a Bible at gatherings in Frankfurt so that he could sell the Bibles before they were printed, beginning a tradition that has lasted for nearly 600 years. (Today Frankfurt is the site each October of the world’s largest trade fair for books.) Sales of Gutenberg’s Bible were strong enough so that the initial printing of 130 copies was increased to 180. The publication of those 180 Bibles changed the world!
Gutenberg’s Bible was in Latin, about 11-1/2” x 16”, bound in two volumes totaling 1,282 pages. It was printed in two columns of forty-two lines each in black ink (a few copies have some headings in red) with space left for colored additions. Each Bible is different because the decoration of each was individually hand colored.
Forty-eight copies still exist, and they are the world’s most valuable printed books. The British Library has two copies, one
printed on paper and one printed on vellum. They can be viewed and compared at the British Library web site.
Gutenberg’s invention did not bring him financial success—which is another lesson for business start-ups. In fact, he was unable to repay Faust, who took over the print shop, the presses, and the type. It was not the first time—or the last—when “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7)