Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

John Gutenberg

The fall of Constantinople had brought the Greek scholars with their manuscripts to Italy, but it would have been a long while before even the most learned men of Western Europe could have read the writings if a German named John Gu'ten-berg had not been working away for many years, trying to invent a better process of making books than the slow, tiresome method of copying them by hand, letter by letter. When Gutenberg was a boy, this was the way in which all books were made. Moreover, they were generally written on parchment, and this added to the expense. The result was that a book was a costly article, and few people could afford to own one. After Gutenberg became a young man, a way of making books was invented which people thought was a most wonderful improvement. For each page the printer took a block of fine-grained wood, drew upon it whatever picture he was to print, then cut the wood away, leaving the outlines of the picture. By inking this and pressing it upon the paper he could print a page. Only one side of the paper was used, and so every pair of leaves had to be pasted together. At first only pictures were printed, but after a while some lettering was also done. Such books were called block books. Many were printed in this way whose pictures illustrated Bible history; and these were known as poor men's Bibles.


John Gutenberg.

Although the block books were much less expensive than the books written by hand, still they were by no means cheap. It was long, slow work to cut a block for each page; and after as many books had been printed as were needed, the blocks were of no further use. Gutenberg wondered whether there was not some better way to print a book. He pondered and dreamed over the matter and made experiments. At last the idea which he sought came to him, an idea so simple that it seems strange no one had thought of it sooner. It was only to cut each letter on a separate piece of wood, form the letters into words, bind them together the shape and size of a page, print as many copies as were desired, then separate the letters and use them in other books till they were worn out. Here was the great invention; but it was a long way from this beginning to a well-printed book.


Gutenberg's House.
(At Strasburg, Germany)

Now people began to wonder what Gutenberg could be working at so secretly. In those days everything that was mysterious was explained as witchcraft; so the inventor, in order to avoid any such charge, made himself a workshop in a deserted monastery outside of the town. He had yet to learn how to make his types of metal, how to fasten them together firmly in forms, how to put on just enough ink, and how to make a press.


Gutenberg Showing His First Proof.

At length he carried through a great undertaking,—he printed a Latin Bible. This was completed in 1455, and was the first Bible ever printed. But Gutenberg was in trouble. He had not had the money needed to carry on this work without help, and he had been obliged to take a partner by the name of John Faust. Faust was disappointed in not making as much money as he had expected. The Bible had taken longer to complete and had cost more than Gutenberg had planned; and at length Faust brought a suit to recover what he had loaned. The judge decided in his favor, and everything that the inventor owned went to him. Gutenberg was left to begin again. Nevertheless he went on bravely with his printing, trying all the time to print better and better. By and by the E-lec'tor A-dol'phus of Nas'sau gave him a pension. This is all that is known of the last few years of his life. He died in 1468; but the art of printing lived. Printing presses could hardly be set up fast enough, for every country wanted them. England, France, Holland, Germany had presses within a few years after the death of Gutenberg. The Jews carried one to Constantinople, and a century later even Russia had one.


Oldest Known Picture of a Printing Press.

So it was that the knowledge of printing flashed over Europe. Of course those old Greek manuscripts were printed and sent from country to country. A Venetian printer named Al'do Ma-nu'zi-o issued especially accurate and well-made copies, which became known as the Aldine editions. The crusades had aroused people and made them ready and eager to learn. Now they found in the ancient writings of the Greeks and Romans nobler poems, more dignified histories, and more brilliant orations than they had known before. By this "New Learning," as it was called, men were stimulated to think. They felt as if they were brighter and keener than they used to be, as if they were not their old slow, dull selves, but were becoming quick and clear-minded. They felt so much as if they had just been born into a new, fresh world that the name Re-nais-sance' or new birth, has been given to this period.


The early making of books. — Block books. — Gutenberg's invention. — His Latin Bible. — His troubles with Faust. — His last days. — The spread of printing. — The Aldine editions. — The Renaissance.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Fall of Constantinople  |  Next: Columbus Discovers America
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.