Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (c. 1398 – 3 February, 1468) was a German goldsmith and printer who is credited with being the first European to use movable type printing c. 1439 and the global inventor of the mechanical printing press. His major work, the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible), has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality.

Among the specific contributions to printing that are attributed to Gutenberg are the invention of a process for mass-producing movable type, the use of oil-based ink, and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the screw olive and wine presses of the period. His truly epochal invention was the combination of these elements into a practical system. Gutenberg may have been familiar with printing; it is claimed that he had worked on copper engravings with an artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. Gutenberg's method for making type is traditionally considered to have included a type metal alloy and a hand mould for casting type.

The use of movable type was a marked improvement on the handwritten manuscript, which was the existing method of book production in Europe, and upon woodblock printing, and revolutionized European book-making. Gutenberg's printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe and is considered a key factor in the European Renaissance. Gutenberg remains a towering figure in the popular image; in 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg #1 on their "People of the Millennium" countdown, and in 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg's invention as the most important of the second millennium.

Early life

Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. According to some accounts Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely he was involved in the cloth trade. Gutenberg's year of birth is not precisely known but was most likely around 1398.

John Lienhard, technology historian, says "Most of Gutenberg's early life is a mystery. ... His father worked with the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing." This is supported by historian Heinrich Wallau, who adds, "In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries his [descendants] claimed an hereditary position as ... the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases."

Wallau adds, "His surname was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors 'zu Laden, zu Gutenberg'. The house of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century." Patricians (aristocrats) in Mainz were often named after houses they owned. Around 1427, the name zu Gutenberg, after the family house in Mainz, is documented to have been used for the first time.

In 1411, there was an uprising in Mainz against the patricians, and more than a hundred families were forced to leave. As a result, the Gutenbergs are thought to have moved to Eltville am Rhein (Alta Villa), where his mother had an inherited estate. According to historian Heinrich Wallau, "All that is known of his youth is that he was not in Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strasburg, where the family probably had connections." He is assumed to have studied at the University of Erfurt, where there is a record of a student, in 1419, named Johannes de Alta villa.

Nothing is now known of Gutenberg's life for the next fifteen years, but in March 1434, a letter by him indicates that he was living in Strasbourg, where he had some relatives on his mother's side. He also appears to have been a goldsmith member enrolled in the Strasbourg militia. In 1437, there is evidence that he was instructing a wealthy tradesman on polishing gems, but where he had acquired this knowledge is unknown. In 1436/37 his name also comes up in court in connection with a broken promise of marriage to a woman from Strasbourg, Ennelin. Whether the marriage actually took place is not recorded. Following his father's death in 1419, he is mentioned in the inheritance proceedings.

Printing press

Around 1439, Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors (which were believed to capture holy light from religious relics) for sale to pilgrims to Aachen: in 1439 the city was planning to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but the event was delayed by one year and the capital already spent could not be repaid. When the question of satisfying the investors came up, Gutenberg is said to have promised to share a "secret". It has been widely speculated that this secret may have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light".

At least up to 1444, he lived in Strasbourg, most likely in the St. Arbogast suburb. It was in Strasbourg in 1440 that Gutenberg perfected and unveiled the secret of printing based on his research, mysteriously entitled Kunst und Aventur (art and enterprise). It is not clear what work he was engaged in, or whether some early trials with printing from movable type may have been conducted there. After this, there is a gap of four years in the record. In 1448, he was back in Mainz, where he took out a loan from his brother-in-law Arnold Gelthus, presumably for a printing press.

By 1450, the press was in operation, and a German poem had been printed, possibly the first item to be printed there. Gutenberg was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders. Peter Schöffer, who became Fust's son-in-law, also joined the enterprise. Schöffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and designed some of the first typefaces.

Gutenberg's workshop was set up at Hof Humbrecht, a property belonging to a distant relative. It is not clear when Gutenberg conceived the Bible project, but for this he borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust, and work commenced in 1452. At the same time, the press was also printing other, more lucrative texts (possibly Latin grammars). There is also some speculation that there may have been two presses, one for the pedestrian texts, and one for the Bible. One of the profit-making enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the church, documented from 1454–55.

In 1455 Gutenberg published his 42-line Bible, commonly known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.

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