Johannes Gutenberg

Like most cities, Mainz, Germany, has a small problem with graffiti. Amateur sketches andillegible scrawls deface numerous alleyways and buildings. But the city has a brilliant solution to combat these eyesores: placing beautiful paintings from local artists right on top of them.

In a walk alongside the Rhine River waterfront, one can see a 12-foot-tall painted portrait of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, covering what was formerly a graffitied wall. Gutenberg, who was born around 1385 in Mainz, was the son of a modest merchant family and apprenticed as a goldsmith in his early life. After a bitter craftsman revolt, his family was exiled from Mainz and Gutenberg settled in Strasbourg, France, where his work with printing began.

His invention of printing from movable type utilized metal alloys and ink in ways that were durable, reusable and easily transferable to paper. His first printing press allowed for even pressure on printing surfaces and mechanized the transfer of ink, a process that differentiated his work from the earlier printings of the Chinese.

Unfortunately for Gutenberg, he wasn’t as skilled at making financial decisions or selecting business partners as he was at printing. Around 1450, Gutenberg persuaded the wealthy Mainz financier Johann Fust to lend him 800 guilders – the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in present day – for printing equipment and tools. Fust lent an additional 800 guilders to become a partner in Gutenberg’s business and to finance his project that would finish the 180 Bibles.

The partnership soured because Fust wanted a quick return on his investment. Gutenberg, however, was more focused on perfectionism over promptness and paying his shop employees. While heavily in debt and nearly finished with his 42-line Bible masterpiece, Gutenberg was sued by Fust. He subsequently lost. He was ordered to pay the sums of his two loans with interest, which drove Gutenberg to financial ruin.

Fust took over ownership of the Gutenberg Bible, the print supplies and put his name and coat of arms over the printer’s former workshop. Fust also retained ownership of Gutenberg’s second major achievement: the Psalter, a book of Psalms. Fust went on to print using Gutenberg’s equipment with the assistance of Peter Schoffer, who had been Gutenberg’s most skilled employee. The Psalter was the first printed book in Europe to list the names of its creators.Unfortunately for Gutenberg, the names listed on that book belonged to only Johann Fust and Peter Schoffer.

Gutenberg restarted his printing work from the beginning, but his name never appeared on any of his works. He lived in poverty in Mainz until he eventually received a work pension from the archbishop, before his death in 1468. While he didn’t gain fame or fortune during his life, Gutenberg’s work advanced the spread of knowledge throughout Europe through the mass production of books. Local Mainz guide Anke Sprenger said, “Gutenberg paved the way first for the reformer Martin Luther; he could use it like today we use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to make ourselves heard. Paved the way also for Napoleon, for spreading his ideas of the French Revolution, of freedom, liberty and equality of man. And also, we need to see Gutenberg as the basis of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates developing the computer, initiating a new second media revolution. We can say they are the disciples of Johannes Gutenberg."

The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz is solely dedicated to the world of printing, with dozens of printing press prototypes and an original Gutenberg Bible, one of the 49 copies left in the world. Come to learn more about the mystical Johannes Gutenberg, a man who Time Magazine named the most important person of the last millennium.

Written by Matt Shiffler

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