Where Gutenberg worked

I took a detour on a trip to Europe so I could visit Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum, having become obsessed with the great man and his magnificent disruption as both an inventor and an entrepreneur.

It was awe-inspiring to stand before the first known page of his printing (a snippet from the Sibylline prophesy, found in the binding of another book). It’s not beautiful; betas rarely are. But next to it is the culmination of Gutenberg’s art in three of his his Bibles, his masterpieces.

Another case captured my imagination. In it were the indulgences the Catholic Church could make and sell at scale, thanks to printing. Next to them were three of Martin Luther’s pamphlets, which he could also print at scale and it is that scale that enabled him to so disrupt the Church.

Also in that case were political broadsides printed by Gutenberg’s successors–his funder, Johann Fust, who called the startup’s debt and took over the business–in a battle between two bishops in Mainz. I write in Public Parts:

The press quickly made an impact on the political structure of society. According to Albert Kapr’s definitive biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, among the earliest nonreligious publications produced in the great man’s shop by his successors—Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer—were political pamphlets. A series of broadsides from each side of a church fight to control the city of Mainz were published on the same presses in 1461, demonstrating from the start that this tool of publicness, like most to follow, was neutral and agnostic. “All these pamphlets were aimed at gaining public support for the respective protagonists and defaming their opponents,” Kapr writes. “To the matériel of warfare—halberds, rapiers, swords, harquebuses and cannon—psychological weapons had been added, which could be delivered by means of the printing press.” Here we see publishing’s nascent role in the birth of media, propaganda and the public sphere they would influence.

On another floor was an exhibit about newspapers and their predecessors, including small publications called posts. Pardon my blog-centric view of that, but I quite like that on blogs, we also have posts. I was struck by the continuum of media on display there and the reminder that neither print nor newspapers were forever; they were each invented. Each may be replaced. Soon, I’ll post a piece I’ve been working on about Gutenberg as probably the first technology entrepreneur. In it, I note that printing by impressing ink on paper may be seeing its twilight, replaced by ink-jet technologies just as photography on paper has been replaced by digital.

Mind you, books and printing will not disappear. After my visit to the museum, I had the great privilege of having lunch with Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, thanks to a connection made via Twitter by his wife and partner, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. They run a wonderful small press, Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz, publishing and printing beautiful small books about art and typography. Where better in the world to do that? Bertram said that books will continue but as special, premium products. I agree. In that, they recapture Gutenberg’s original vision of print as beauty.

At the museum, I was lucky to be around as a TV crew was filming a demonstration of the technologies in Gutenberg’s pressroom. The press already existed for olives, grapes, and paper; Gutenberg had to adapt it for printing. Ink already existed, of course, but Gutenberg had to adapt that, too, to his needs. But his critical and unsung invention was the hand-held mold that enabled Gutenberg to make fonts–thousands of letters needed for the Bible–quickly and consistently. It required ingenious design and no small expertise in metallurgy and I was delighted to finally see one in action, below.


  • Nice story. It’s good to know that the history of printing is being preserved somewhere and that future generations will be able to visit there and understand the origins of people having access to the written word in a way that was under their control – that is they could locate material to read that interested them – and read it in their own place and time. I wonder if this aspect of what printing meant is becoming eroded as internet providers increasingly serve us with material that “they” want us to read rather than what me might wish to read? It would be unfortunate if further progression of the printed word led to a regression in one of the original ideals of why mass printing began in the first place!

  • Gorm Ganderup

    Guthenbergs invention of the printing press is actually impressing in the light that he was one of the first (if not the first) to take technological development to the next level. Until then new technologies had mainly been improvements/offsprings of already existing technology but Guthenberg actually had to fit many different improvements together to make a useful printing press. So besides his revolutionary invention he also revolutionized the way technology was developed (the next quantum leap being Edison who institutionalized the modern research center).

  • Not sure if this is the best place for this note. I would like to challenge the notion that when developing software, it is always good to be public and solicit advice from the general public. Case in point: apple and steve jobs, Unlike Google (which I admire too) his method was to imagine a future product, get the best people to design and engineer it, and then release it to the public. He wanted full control of the end-to-end system so that he can control the user experience.

    Sometimes the single person, or a small group of people, can come up with ideas that the public would never consider.

    In the social arena, publicity seems to work well when people are tolerant. When the majority is respectful of the minority. Sadly, this is often not the case.

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