Friday, December 09, 2005

The First Printed Book

Medieval books, full of lovely and intricate renderings made by skilled artists and calligraphers, were much too expensive for commoners. But the growth of learning prompted by the Renaissance and especially then the Reformation, created a desire by many for affordable, readable books.

The first efforts to fulfill this desire involved woodcut pages in which each page was carved or etched on a solid block of wood in a reverse image. That page was inked and pressed against paper to create a lasting image. Theoretically, the process could be repeated many times. However, in practice, the letters smudged badly and the woodcut blocks themselves frequently broke.

Eventually, the idea to improve this situation was to carve each letter separately, making the print clearer as well as making it easier (and less expensive) to replace when broken. This "movable type" would thus allow a printer to form each page of a book for quick and repeated printings. And if the blocks could be made to last longer; i.e., to make them out of metal, so much the better.

Several printers in Europe were working on this goal in the early 15th Century but it was Johann Gutenberg in 1450 who best capitalized on his ideas. He borrowed money to turn his intellectual concept into a true, working "printing press." But alas, after 5 years with no book to show for his efforts, his creditor sued him. Gutenberg was financially ruined.

The creditor was Johann Faust and he moved forward with Gutenberg's ideas. In fact, Faust teamed up with type designer, Peter Schoeffer, and in 1456, in Mainz, Germany, they presented to the world its first printed book.

But for whatever reasons, the heartbroken dreamer behind the dream was not to be forgotten. And today, long after the names of Faust and Schoeffer have been forgotten, their product is as famous as ever. It is -- the Gutenberg Bible.