The Printing Press
Our granddaughter Katyana loves books, and she has an
extensive library for a kindergartener. One of my favorite mental
pictures is of her and her grandfather wedged side-by-side in his
big chair, reading a book together.
The book in her collection that is most special to me is her
pop-up book about Johannes Gutenberg. I sometimes think
adults appreciate the beauty and intricacy of pop-up books even
more than children do.
The special thing about this particular book, for me, is the subject.
Gutenberg invented the printing press, and for much of my
childhood, I worked on and around printing presses.
I was 10 when my father bought the Happy Herald, a weekly
newspaper in the Texas Panhandle. A few years later, I was
running "job work," or commercial printing--letterheads,
envelopes, business cards and business forms--on our upright
It was called a snapper because it snapped open and shut with a
regular rhythm. You had to catch its rhythm, or it would snap
shut on your fingers. I did it by singing in time to its rhythm,
mostly work songs, gospel songs and show tunes.
When it opened, you'd have a few seconds to take out the
printed page and insert a blank one. In the same action, the
rollers would roll over the plate at the top and distribute ink over
Johannes Gutenberg, top inset. Katyana and her
grandfather read the pop-up book "Gutenberg's
Gift," with an open page from the book showing
his printing press, right.
Johannes Gutenberg was born around 1398 in Mainz,
Germany. He was the youngest son of an upper-class
merchant and a shopkeeper's daughter. Most of his early life
is unknown, but his father worked with the ecclesiastical
mint, and Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of metal
He is assumed to have attended the University of Erfurt, and
he later lived in Strassburg, where he developed movable
type in Europe around 1439. It had spread over the
continent within a decade.
Gutenberg cast metal type from an alloy of lead, tin and
antimony, which was more durable and produced more
uniform type faces than clay, wood or bronze.
By 1450, Gutenberg's press was in operation, and he printed
a German poem on it. From 1452-1455, he published 180
copies of what is known as the Gutenberg Bible, most on
paper, but some on vellum.
With the volume of work required to set each page, load the
press, ink the type, pull the impressions, hang up the sheets
and distribute the type, it is estimated that his shop may have
employed up to 25 craftsmen.
The future pope Pius II wrote of his work in 1455, "The
script is very neat and legible, and not at all difficult to
follow," explaining that the cardinal to whom he was writing
"would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without
Gutenberg's Bibles sold for roughly three years' wages for an
average clerk, which was significantly less than a handwritten
Bible. After the text was printed, the book was illustrated,
or illuminated, by hand.
Forty-eight complete copies still exist, including one on
display at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Two from the
British Library can be viewed and compared online.
In 1465, Gutenberg's achievements were recognized, and he
was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court), with a
stipend and an annual suit of clothing to wear in the royal
court. But when he died in 1468, he was financially
unsuccessful and his contributions were largely unknown.
The technology spread quickly across Europe, though,
feeding the growing Renaissance, facilitating scientific
publishing and becoming instrumental in the Protestant
Martin Luther's 95 Theses was printed and circulated widely,
and his broadsheets outlining his case against indulgences
contributed to the development of the newspaper.
As Mark Twain said, "What the world is today, good and
bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this
source, but we are bound to bring him homage . . . for the
bad that his colossal invention has brought about is
overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which
mankind has been favored."