11 months ago

A Beautiful Job

In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg entered into an agreement with one Johann Fust, a Mainzer goldsmith and guildsman, to borrow a staggering 800 Rheingulden at 6 percent interest. Gutenberg’s sales pitch must have been convincing, for Fust would later testify that he himself had borrowed money in order to fund the loan. Gutenberg sank the money into his workshop and promptly defaulted upon the interest payments. Fust must have been incandescent in his rage, and yet, two years later, as recorded in the inevitable court judgment, he would go on to lend Gutenberg another 800 Rheingulden on the condition that Gutenberg take on Fust’s adopted son, Peter Schöffer, as his foreman. Gutenberg assented, Schöffer was hired, and Fust paid out the second loan.

Why was Fust so ready to throw good money after bad? The prize that Gutenberg had dangled in front of his financier was, of course, the invention of movable type: the promise that a book could be replicated over and over again with minimal effort. In an era when a handwritten Bible commanded a price equivalent to a laborer’s yearly wage, the ability to print an endless run of books must have appeared as a license to mint Rheingulden. And so Fust was content, if not entirely happy, to leave Gutenberg to tinker with the devices that littered his printing workshop in anticipation of the truly colossal profits that lay ahead if the process could be perfected.

Let’s go into detail.

But wait. It bears mentioning that Johannes Gutenberg, the “father of printing,” was most definitely not the inventor of printing. “The action of making an impression, indentation, etc.,” pre-dates Gutenberg and his Bible by a huge margin, and if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed humanity has been printing for far longer than it has been writing books. In Iraq, for instance, archaeologists have unearthed 8,500-year-old stone seals with which the ancient Mesopotamians made marks on clay jars and boxes. (Proving that the human psyche has changed very little in the intervening millennia, one of these very earliest seals is engraved with a stylized penis.) Even if we narrow our definition to the printing of written texts, Gutenberg was still a latecomer. The ancient Egyptians used wooden stamps to impress hieroglyphics on clay tiles within tombs, while the so-called Phaistos Disk, a mysterious artifact found on Crete and tentatively dated to the second millennium BCE, bears a series of distinctly letterlike indentations on its clay surface.

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