Johann Gutenberg grew up in Mainz, Germany. He devoured books, reading all that his wealthy father ordered. The volumes were outrageously expensive, sometimes costing as much as a farm. Local scribes copied the texts by hand, illuminators decorated the margins, and binders made the covers. Finally, the title was stamped into the leather cover by brass punches. It was the punches that suggested an idea to Johann. Why not make separate metal letters and arrange them into words? Why not set up a page and print it using a press?
Johann moved to Strasbourg and set up a secret workshop near an old monastery. Though beset by problems, he toiled for years to get his invention to work. Finally, Johann returned to Mainz where he was assured an income by inheritance.
He set up a printing shop, and in 1450, after 30 years, he was ready to begin. He chose the Bible as his first book. Such a project required he borrow 800 guldens from Johann Fust, but if he wasn’t repaid with interest in five years, Fust demanded, all the equipment and materials would revert to him.
It took Johann two years to set up a workshop. He hired workers, had presses built, and taught laborers to grind and mix ink. Then he was ready to begin printing. Two more years went by, and the invention wasn’t working well. Another year passed, and two months before the Bible was completed, Fust sued. On November 6, 1455, the judge ruled in his favor.
Gutenberg angrily turned over his presses and almost-completed Bibles to Fust. The Bible was reportedly first published on March 13, 1456, and for many years the credit went to Fust and his partner, Peter Schoffer. But after Gutenberg died on February 3, 1469, Schoffer admitted that, after all, Johann Gutenberg had invented printing.*
* Information about Gutenberg is notoriously hard to pin down. The above account is based on Fine Print: A Story About Johann Gutenberg by Joann Johansen Burch (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1991).
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day: 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.13.
ALSO ON THIS DAY
1604 – Cardinal d’Ossat who had served as a diplomat on behalf of France died in Rome. He was instrumental in reconciling King Henry IV, formerly a Huguenot, to the pope, and his well-crafted diplomatic letters will serve as models to aspiring civil servants.
1785 – At the Burg-theatre, Vienna, Mozart’s cantata Davidde Penitente receives its first performance. This is called a “half-mass” because its ten movements include a Kyrie and Gloria. The work had been commissioned by the committee of the Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Musicians.
1925 – The State of Tennessee passes House Bill No. 185, the “Butler Act” prohibiting any teaching that contradicts the Genesis creation account. It will be signed by the governor on March 25th and will lead to the Scopes Monkey Trial the following July.
2013 – Conclave elects Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the first pope from the Americas. He takes the name Francis.
Accessed ChristianHistoryInstitute.org 11 March 2022.