In a letter dated 12 March 1455, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini wrote, “Nothing has been exaggerated about that amazing man near Frankfurt.” Piccolomini was writing to his friend and mentor, Juan De Carvajal. Carvajal was a 55-year-old lawyer and Spanish Cardinal; Piccolomini would become Pope Pius II three years later. But the “amazing man near Frankfurt,” whose name was Johannes Gutenberg, would become more famous and would impact history far more than either Piccolomini or Carvajal. “I have not seen complete copies of his Bible,” continued Piccolomini, “but I did see quires [manuscript leaves] of various parts of the text in very fine and proper letters which Your Honor could read without any trouble and without using your glasses.” Piccolomini hoped to buy a volume for his friend but feared this would not be possible “because copies are sold even before they are completed.” The most famous book ever printed was sold out before the volumes were printed and bound!
Johannes Gutenberg did not invent paper, ink, or even moveable type. The Chinese were making paper in the second century B.C. Their papermaking techniques were picked up by the Islamic world where paper mills produced paper for various uses, including paper currency. And by the 13th century, paper mills powered by waterwheels were in operation in Spain. Ink had existed for millennia and was in common use in Europe in Gutenberg’s day. And moveable type was first used in China around AD 1040, though its use remained confined to East Asia.
What Gutenberg did that was so “amazing” was combine and refine several existing technologies in a way that made book printing feasible both technologically and economically. Existing water-based inks tended to blur in the printing process, so he developed a new oil-based, varnish-like ink containing soot, metals, and egg white. The ink adhered well to metal-type and transferred to paper without smearing.
Hand-carved type was laborious to produce, so Gutenberg developed a method for casting individual pieces of metal type. He developed a tin-lead-antimony alloy with a low melting point that allowed the use of a reusable mold. An experienced type-maker could cast 4,000 to 5,000 pieces of type a day using this new method.
Using a type of screw press that was commonly used in agricultural applications, he developed a press that could quickly and consistently press paper and type face together, enabling a limited number of workers to rapidly produce page after page of identical printed sheets.
The Bible was not the first publication printed by Gutenberg using this new technology, but it was the largest project he had done and demonstrated the potential of his new invention. His Bible was a stunning piece of work: 1,288 pages, each measuring about 16 by 12 inches, bound into two volumes and weighing a total of about fourteen pounds. And it was stunningly beautiful: most editions included hand tinting and decorating, and each edition is slightly different.
Gutenberg printed only about 180 copies of his Bible, but it was sufficient to demonstrate the power of his new press. An expert scribe could produce only a few pages a day and creating a complete Bible by hand was a year-long process. Existing methods of printing could produce only thirty to forty pages a day. Gutenberg’s press, by contrast, could produce up to 3,600 pages in a single workday.
Gutenberg launched an information revolution that spread rapidly. In 1457, Gutenberg operated a single printing press in Mainz, Germany. By 1480 there were 110 presses in Europe built on Gutenberg’s design, and by 1500 printing presses throughout Europe had produced over twenty million volumes.
Christopher Columbus owned several of these newly printed books, and there is evidence he read many others as he developed and refined his plan to reach the East by sailing west. And the existence of this new printing industry enabled reports of Columbus’s success to spread rapidly throughout Europe – his account of his historic first voyage was printed in Rome just a few weeks after his return to Spain and became an instant best-seller all across Europe.
When Martin Luther first nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, the document had a very limited audience – those who passed by the church door. But Luther’s Theses, written in Latin, were quickly printed and distributed around Germany. In January his Theses were translated and printed in German. By the end of the year, more than 300,000 copies of Luther’s tracts had been printed and distributed. Without Gutenberg, Luther might have been just another obscure excommunicated priest; but with the power of Gutenberg’s technology, Luther launched one of the most significant and far-reaching cultural, political, and religious shifts in modern history.
In many ways, Europe in in the mid-fifteenth century was a cultural backwater. The world’s most advanced civilizations were in Asia and the Islamic world; Islam was on the rise and Christianity on the decline. Gutenberg’s disruptive technology helped fuel the rise of the West, and within less than a century Western Europe rose to a position of dominance and Christianity achieved new power and influence.
The modern printing press launched an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society, accelerated the development of European languages and the decline of Latin. Perhaps of greatest important, it made sacred scripture available to ordinary people – the Bible is still the most widely published book in history. Gutenberg’s print run may have been less than 200 copies, but in the past 50 years over 3.9 billion copies of the Bible have been published. It was in a commercially printed Bible that Joseph Smith read James 1:5-6, a passage that changed his life and led to the Restoration, and it was a modern printing press that enabled the publishing of the Book of Mormon. Gutenberg’s remarkable invention played a central role in making the Restoration possible. Without Gutenberg, it is hard to imagine how the gospel could ever reach every nation, kindred, tongue and people.
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that “the Lord would pour out his blessings and his Spirit upon all people and use them to accomplish his purposes.” Surely Johannes Gutenberg was one of those people.
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