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Discovery Of The Art Of Printing

( Originally Published 1927 )



There is a controversy concerning the first discoverer of the art of printing as just defined. The Dutch city of Haerlem, the German city of Mentz, and the Alsatian city of Strasbourg attribute it to their own countrymen. The dispute, however, is turned rather on words than on facts; it seems to have arisen from the different definitions of the word printing. If movable types be considered as a criterion, the merit of the discovery is due to Johannes Gutenberg of Mentz. From all arguments and opinions which have been adduced in the important controversy and which fill scores of ponderous volumes, the conclusion may be satisfactorily drawn that to JOHANNES GUTENBERG is due the appellation of the father of printing, and to his associate, Peter Schoeffer, that of father of letter founding.

Gutenberg arrived at his goal in the year 1452. His reflections, leading to his invention, seem to have been the following:

There are in the alphabet twenty-six letters, and the same letters are used over and over to spell many thousands of words. In a page of words portions of the alphabet are employed numbers of times; after printing has been accomplished with the solid wooden block the carved letters are lost. If, instead of engraving the whole page on a solid wooden block, small movable blocks were used for engraving each letter, then the same letters could be used any number of times. The letters would have to be carved in wood with small handles to them so that they could be taken up and placed together as if one were spelling. The result of this reasoning was the birth of movable type—the keystone of the art of printing. Out of a piece of hard wood, Gutenberg sawed some thousand tiny blocks, a few inches long and very narrow. At one end he cut a letter in relief, and bored a hole through the other. After having thus furnished himself with a number of the letters of the alphabet, he placed whole words together, arranged them in lines on a string, until they formed a page; then he bound them together with wire and so prevented them from falling apart. Gutenberg then blackened his wooden type with ink and taking up the whole together, he pressed it upon a sheet of paper. It was the Lord's Prayer with which he made his first attempt at printing with movable types.

Instead of holding the type together with cord and wire, Gutenberg's next step was the invention of a frame with wedges to keep the type in place. Thereupon he constructed the press to imprint with; it was a simple wine-press, a common screw press. Ink softened the wooden type, injured the shapes of the letters and necessitated frequent renewal. Gutenberg first tried a method of hardening the wooden letters, but did not succeed. Then he and his associate Schoeffer experimented with lead. This, however, was too soft and would not bear sufficient pressure to print. They then tried iron but this metal pierced the paper. At last they hit upon a mixture of regulus of antimony and lead. This material proved to be of requisite softness and strength.

As to ink, common writing ink would not answer, being so liquid as to spot the paper with blots. Finally, a mixture of linseed oil and lamp-black or soot was tried and found to be the right thing. The ink was applied to the type by a dabber, a ball of sheepskin stuffed with wool. It had the appearance of a huge mushroom.

Wearying of the monotonous cutting of type, Gutenberg and Schoeffer began to make casts of type in molds of plaster. A new mold was required for each letter. Schoeffer thereupon cut impresses for the whole alphabet, cut punches and cast type with them.

Gutenberg's first important work was the printing of the entire Bible; making one hundred Bibles took six men six years, working all day. His Bible was begun 1450 and finished at the end of 1455, printed from cut metal types, not cast as we have them at the present day. Each single letter had to be engraved. Three hundred impressions were made on the press per day working it continuously. This Gutenberg Bible consisted of two volumes, the first had 324, the second 317 pages. The size is almost 12 inches high and 8 inches wide, printed in double columns. The initial-letters in the parchment copies are in gold and various colors, in the paper copies they are painted in blue and red. Each page, with the exception of the first ten pages contains 42 lines, hence the designation of these Bibles as the 42-line Bibles. Only 31 of them are known to be left, ten on parchment and 21 on paper. It is interesting to note that quite recently an American book collector paid $106,000 for one original copy of a Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg's last important work was the "Katholikon", a Latin dictionary and grammar, finished in 1460.

As a contemporary of Gutenberg wrote, "Nothing yet invented by man, ever made such inroads on ignorance as this invention will effect. No more hoarding of libraries which kings and prelates and priests alone may read. The common people will also have their books."

In order that the art of printing might not be divulged, Gutenberg administered an oath of secrecy to all the printers he employed. This was strictly adhered to until the year 1462, when following up a mighty strife between Diether, Archbishop of Isenburgh and Archbishop Adolphus of Nassau, the latter stormed and pillaged Mentz. The city was fired and the printing establishment of Gutenberg was laid in ruins. Gutenberg's printing franchise was revoked. Through the consternation occasioned by this event, the workmen believed that their oath of fidelity was no longer binding, they fled to other cities and to other countries, and there exercised their profession and instructed others in the art of printing. The end of the 15th century saw this art exercised in the greater part of Europe. Among the many celebrated printers in Europe who carried on Gutenberg's invention and brought it to a high degree of perfection were:

Aldus Manutius of Venice, Italy,

Stephanus Etienne of Paris, France,

William Caxton of London, England,

Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, Belgium,

Louis Elzevir of Leyden, Holland,

Giambattista Bodoni of Parma, Italy.



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