The Man of the Millennium
Johannes Gutenberg was born as Johann Gensfleisch (John Gooseflesh) of a well-to-do family near Mainz, Germany, and became a goldsmith or gem cutter in Strasbourg. It was there that he also learned about printing.
Printing presses at the time used individually carved wooden blocks to transfer ink to paper. This was useful for printing handbills, playing cards, and pictures of saints, but it was not practical for books.
In 1448 Gutenberg returned to Mainz, set up a print shop, and helped fill a huge market for certificates of indulgences, which were printed acknowledgments of a gift to the church in exchange for forgiveness of the punishment of sins.
During this time Gutenberg also developed a process using movable type to print a Bible. He chose a metal alloy for the type that would melt at a relatively low temperature but would withstand the pressure of the printing press. He also had to develop an oil-based ink that would transfer best to paper. Gutenberg’s inventions seem obvious today, but at the time they were revolutionary.
For each page of the Bible, a typesetter would select the letters and arrange them in a frame, which was then locked into the bed of a press that had been adapted from a wine or olive press. The type was inked with horsehair-stuffed balls, and a sheet of paper or vellum was moistened, placed on the inked type, and pressed down.
Before Gutenberg, each book had to be painstakingly hand copied; after Gutenberg, a book could be printed thousands of
times. It was said of another printer, “He prints as much in a day as was formerly written in a year.” Before Gutenberg, culture and knowledge were reserved for the educated and wealthy; after Gutenberg, it was made available to anyone who could read. Before Gutenberg, libraries were small—the Cambridge University Library had only 122 volumes in 1424, for instance; after Gutenberg, literacy became widespread.
It’s no wonder, then that in 1999 Time magazine chose Johannes Gutenberg as the Man of the Millennium for creating a revolutionary way to spread the sum total of human knowledge around the globe.
And it all started with a Bible.