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Was Johannes Gutenberg a 15th century con man?

By Greg Stevens

Who printed the Gutenberg Bible? It sounds like a Groucho Marx joke, of the “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” variety. But the story behind the invention of the printing press, and the first book ever printed, is riddled with intrigue, subterfuge, and mystery. Let’s start by finding out more about who Gutenberg really was.

The Grifter

For one thing, Johannes Gutenberg was not a nice person. He was secretive and paranoid. He peddled strange and wacky schemes and was always trying to borrow money. Based on what few public records exist concerning his early adulthood, he could easily fit today’s well-known stereotype of the entrepreneur con man: ready to paint glorious pictures of the things he could create, if only you front him some cash.

He was sued by business partners. He was sued by creditors. He was sued for back tax money. In 1436, he was sued by a woman for “a breach of promise”. These are the most concrete records that can be found for most of Gutenberg’s adult life.

There are no records at all of his birth or his death, and during his lifetime he was never an important enough man for anyone to create a portrait of him. The several “portraits” of him that you can find floating around the internet, including the one on Wikipedia, are imaginative sketches concocted by artists who wanted to honor him, usually more than a hundred years after his death. These portraits are artistic fantasies.

Johannes Gutenberg. May or may not be an accurate likeness

Johannes Gutenberg. May or may not be an accurate likeness

By the 1430s, Europe was already straining under the demand of increased literacy and increasing costs of scribes and workmen.

He was probably brilliant, in a technical way. But his invention was no ideological flight of fancy. By the 1430s, Europe was already straining under the demand of increased literacy and increasing costs of scribes and workmen.

The technique of “block printing” was well-known at the time: a page of text could be carved into a block of wood, and then used to create multiple copies of a page over and over again. This had been used in asia for hundreds of years, and some publishers in Europe tried to use it for books.

It was, however, inefficient. It took a lot of effort to carve out a page of a book onto a block of wood, and unless a very large number of copies were to be printed, it barely seemed worth the cost: each block of wood became useless when printing was done.

So Gutenberg was not, in fact, some kind of ideological crusader who wanted to bring an opportunity for literacy to the common man. He was just your typical broke entrepreneur with a get-rich-quick scheme.

The crooked investor

But even get-rich-quick schemes need funding. Throughout the 1440s, Gutenberg tinkered with his idea. Most of it was done in secrecy, because he was increasingly paranoid that someone would steal it from him. As a result, it’s impossible for us to know the steps of trial and error he went through, or how his ideas evolved.

We do know that by the end of it all, he had a great number of technical achievements. Ultimately, he invented not only the actual letters themselves and the design of the typeface, but the mechanics of the box to hold letters, the press to hold the paper against the typeface, and even the ink that was used by the press. He truly did have a creative technical mind.

We also know, however, that by 1450 his money ran out. He persuaded a wealthy lawyer, Johann Fust, whom today we might call an “angel investor”, to loan him 800 guilders (a lot of money: enough to buy several small farms) to set up a shop, and 300 guilders per year for operation. In 1452, records show that Fust loaned Gutenberg another 800 guilders.

The money was spent wisely: Gutenberg indeed produced a printing press with moveable type. He decided that his first book, designed to display this technology to the world, would be the Bible. This was not thanks to any spiritual inspiration or religious zeal; he simply thought it would make the most money. Thus, at some point between 1452 and 1455, the printing of all 1,286 pages of what we now call “the Gutenberg Bible” was completed.

Early documentation states that a total of 200 copies were scheduled to be printed on rag cotton linen paper, and 30 copies on velum animal skin. It is not known exactly how many copies were actually printed.

Bernie Madoff after his 'guilty' plea

Bernie Madoff after his ‘guilty’ plea

However, in November of 1455, before the Bible was actually sold or made any money, Johann Fust turned around and sued Gutenberg for unpaid loans plus interest: a grand total of 2026 guilders. Fust forced Gutenberg into bankruptcy, acquired the entire print shop – including the printing press – in the court settlement, and ousted Gutenberg into the streets.

In November 1455, Johann Fust sued Gutenberg for unpaid loans plus interest.

The Bible, of course, was still put to market by Fust. Although Gutenberg had successfully invented the printing press, he did not, unfortunately, invent the Copyright Page. Thus the name “Gutenberg” appears nowhere on the so-called “Gutenberg Bible”.

Johann Fust, moreover, was not over-eager to bring up Gutenberg’s name at parties. Instead, Fust hired Peter Schoeffer, who had been working as Gutenberg’s foreman and therefore had all of the technical expertise to run Gutenberg’s entire printing press operation. Together they ran quite a successful printing operation for many years to come, and made quite a lot of money. Peter Schoeffer even married Johann Fust’s daughter, effectively making the printing press a family business.

In case you have any doubt that Fust and Schoeffer intended to take full and exclusive credit for the invention of the printing press, in 1457 they published a book of The Psalms, and with it included a publisher’s note with the following text:

The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457.

No mention of the existence of anyone named Gutenberg.

All of this might make you feel very sorry for Gutenberg, although you should keep in mind that people often reap what they sow. Looking back on his history, we cannot be certain how Gutenberg used all of the considerable funds that he was loaned for his project. Earlier records suggest that he was something of a grifter.

Some historians believe he may have been diverting funds to other ventures. So perhaps he only got what he deserved.

Johann Gutenberg died in Mainz, Germany, without record, although it must have happened some time in 1468. We know this only because that is when a physician named Konrad Humery sued for the deceased’s possessions as repayment of debts owed.

He never profited from his invention, and died in poverty. He was buried in a Franciscan church, which was demolished and replaced with another church.

Which was later also demolished.

The arc of history

It wasn’t until almost 100 years after Gutenberg’s death that he was identified as the inventor of the printing press in a book on Germanic history. Over time, his reputation grew wildly. For hundreds of years he was written about as though he were single-handedly responsible for everything from literacy in Europe to the Protestant Reformation.

But all good names must come to an end, in the face of culturally-sensitive historians. The fads and fashions of political correctness and revisionist histories have once again tried to punt poor Gutenberg back into obscurity.

Today, a quick search on the web can produce essays that describe Gutenberg as a mere technician in what was rightfully Fust and Schoeffer’s business, and essays that angrily exclaim that none of these Europeans should get credit for anything because the Koreans invented moveable type in the year 1234.

Of course, by now the name Gutenberg has effectively carved its place in history, no matter how shady and convoluted the true historical record might be. Perhaps it can be taken as a morality tale for inventors or entrepreneurs, on the dangers of taking loans from shady investors.

Or perhaps a lesson for grifters: that even if you die penniless, you never know how history will remember you.