How Gutenberg Made History.
The last, and the greatest, invention of the Middle Ages was Johann Gutenberg's printing press. The Renaissance could never had occurred without his invention. But, what was so important about Gutenberg? Why is he considered the father of print when movable type was first used in China some 400 years before that German's birth? Gutenberg wasn't even the first European to use movable type? What was so special about him?
Gutenberg went into a business deal, in Mainz, to make hand mirrors for people who were about to set out on pilgrimage to Aix-la-Chapelle. The mirrors might have been engraved or embossed, hence his involvement: he was a member of the Strasbourg's goldsmith guild. The mirrors might have been "magic mirrors", a clever invention where an image was engraved onto the reverse of the silver backing, and then polished away, but made microscopic changes to the front of the sliver layer. The image was invisible when you looked into the mirror, but if you reflect bright sunlight onto a surface, that image would magically appear as a shadow in the reflected sunlight. There is no evidence of what the mirrors looked like: none have survived. Unfortunately, someone involved in this deal miscalculated when the pilgrims would be leaving: they were off by over a year. This is when Gutenberg told his fellow investors of an idea he had had.
Any invention will only be a success if it meets certain criteria:
1) Is it feasible?
2) Does it serve a need?
3) Will society accept it, at that moment?
Moveable type didn't work out well in China because of the number of characters that were required: up to 250,000. It didn't take off in 13th century Korea because of politics, the need to invent a new alphabet with 24 characters, and the cost, in terms of manpower, to cast the characters in bronze. While China and Korea did print books using movable type, it wasn't a revolutionary invention in the far east, as it was in Europe. Why?
Gutenberg lived at the right time where there was a need for his invention. He lived in a place where people wanted his invention. And he was clever enough to make it practical. Gutenberg started working on his project around 1436, which was the right time. The previous century saw the death of most of Europe, due to famine, war, and the Black Death. Historians estimate that up to 60% of Europe's population died between 1346 and 1365. And this is after years of other plagues and famines that killed off 5 to 12% of Europe's population before the Bubonic Plague hit Italy. It would take centuries before the continent would recover its population.
There was a lack of scribes available to hand-write books, leaflets, broadsheets, and legal and religious documents. The scribes that were available, who didn't work for monasteries and cloisters, charged an arm and a leg for copying. A mechanical method of writing was sorely needed.
Parchment, velum, and other varieties of animal skin were equally expensive. Not only was it a labor intensive process to make, but the 14th century was equally harsh to animals. A plague of rinderpest, in 1321, wiped out most of northern Europe's cattle. Shortly afterwards, an epidemic of the very contagious liver-fuke worm wiped out nearly 70% of Europe's sheep and goats. While cows, sheep and goats can reproduce faster than humans. their populations still had not recovered enough by the middle of the 15th century to make their skins cheap. A single bible could require the skins of 140 calves. This is one of the reasons why so many manuscripts were scrapped clean and re-used during this time period.
So, expensive parchment and expensive, and overworked, scribes. It is no wonder that many people tried to come up with a solution. Xylography, or wood block printing, had been in use, in Europe, since 1200. A craftsman would carve an image or wording, in reverse, onto a piece of wood. Then ink was applied to the wood and it was pressed on to the page. This was useful for small pieces but it was very time consuming to carve out the wording and images. And the wood that was used was not particularly tough, and thus was incapable of long life. Other examples of movable type failed because it was just as labor intensive to produce. The labor was moved from the scribe to the production of the type. So, again, why did Gutenberg succeed?
Because he lived at the right time and in the right place: he was in the center of a perfect storm that had been brewing for years.
Society had fundamentally changed after the decimation of the previous century, both in terms of social norms as well as with the technology that was developed to replace the loss of manpower. The survivors of the 14th century had money and the desire to live life to the fullest. One of the demands of the wealthy was for jewelry and rich clothes, embroidered with gold and silver. This used to mean taking gold or silver leaf and wrapping it around linen or wool thread. But, thanks to innovations in wire drawing, gold and silver wire could be drawn as fine as you wished. Fine enough to be used as embroidery or jewelry making.
The plague had also made the survivors paranoid about bad air and other people. Throughout Europe, people felt that every inch of skin had to be covered up as protection from illness and incidental contact with other people. More fabric was needed to cover up all of those bodies. And more underwear was needed, even for women, who generally did not wear any in previous centuries. After the end of the Medieval Warm Period, around 1307, the average temperature of Europe dropped several degrees: summers became cooler, springs wetter, and winters harsher. More layers were necessary to stay warm. More underwear would have been an issue if not for flax.
Flax liked the new climate and grew like a weed on the lands that had been left uncultivated as the need for crops diminished and land was left fallow. You get linen by pounding flax stalks until the fibers break apart. This was done not by hand, but by machines. The Medieval Warm Period saw the population of Europe quadruple, and water- and wind-mills were built in staggering numbers to grind corn into flour for all of those extra mouths. However, with the mass death, those mouths were forever closed; the mills were no longer needed in such numbers. Water- and wind-powered mills where modified to do the things that used to be done by many people. Sawing wood, pumping bellows, and pounding flax into linen threads. With the increased availability of flax and machine powered trip hammers running 24/7, linen cloth became cheap enough that all levels of society could have as much underwear as they wanted.
Instructions for paper production had reached Europe by 1400, from China. While the Chinese used the bark from the paper mulberry tree, Europeans had to find another ingredient to make their paper. And they found it in linen. Since there was more underwear, there was more underwear to wear out. And when your underwear wears out, you give it to the rag and bone men. They sold the linen rags to the paper makers. The paper makers put the linen rags back under water- and wind-powered trip hammers to be pounded into a pulp. The pulp was then cooked in water to make a slurry, which was then scooped up onto wire mesh trays: wire mesh that was made possible by the wire drawing improvements I had mentioned.
The wet paper was layered between sheets of felt, stacked up, and put under a linen press to squeeze the water out of the sheets. The linen presses were modified wine presses: with the change of climate, wineries throughout northern Europe could no longer produce grapes good enough for wine. That meant that there were tons of wine presses sitting idle. China had been making paper for centuries, but it was done completely by hand. Within twenty years of finding out how to make it, Europe had surpassed China in paper production. Anywhere there was flax growing, idle mills, and unproductive vineyards, paper was made.
A new ink had also been invented for the xylographers, one that more of a paint or a gel than what we would think of as ink. It wasn't runny and wouldn't flow through a pen; it stuck to the woodblocks as they were inverted and pressed onto paper.
Into this storm of technology and change came Gutenberg and his idea. How to make movable type cheap and easy. Gutenberg was a goldsmith by training and knew all about making punches used for maker's marks. He also was in Mainz, where metal was cheap and readily available. The secret to Gutenberg's invention was in how he made the letters. Previous inventors had tried to make each letter one at a time, by hand; which meant that there was a huge variation of size. Which meant the letters didn't line up on the page and didn't look good. And since each letter was made by hand, it took years to make enough letters to be usable. Gutenberg came up with a method of mass producing his typeface.
First, each letter was hand engraved onto the end of a piece of iron. But, instead of hand carving a hundred of each letter, only one was needed of each letter and its variations. Latin only had 23 character, plus 10 numbers, but Gutenberg had variations of many of the letters to correspond with the method of writing at that time: upper case and lower case; short 's' and long 's'; wide 'e' and narrow 'e'. Gutenberg wanted his press to look like the perfect handwriting of a professional scribe. With around 100 characters, it took Gutenberg and his team the better part of a year to make all of the letters. The characters were carved into thin iron bars. These iron bars were then punched into identical sized copper bars, making a reverse image of the letter. Iron and copper were cheap in Mainz, and Gutenberg had access to an unlimited supply of each.
The other half of his invention was his three-part mold. The copper bar slotted into the bottom of the mold, the other two halves held the copper bar and were locked together with a spring. A lead-antimony-tin alloy was melted down and poured into the mold, which was then tapped to dislodge any air bubbles, and then the spring was unleashed after ten seconds to open the mold and the letter was removed, ready for print. The mold meant that each letter block was the same size, regardless of what letter was on it. Each was identical to the hand carved letter but could be made in under a minute. Once the character was engraved and punched into the copper, an experienced craftsman could make a 1,000 character blocks per day, every day.
The printer needed that many character blocks. Look at just this article. How many 'e's do you see? You need that many 'e's to print this article. Now, double that amount, because the printers printed opposing pages at the same time. Now, double that number, again, because while the two pages of your book are being printed, the type setters are busy laying out the next two pages. A print house would need a few thousand character blocks to keep up with the demand for work.
Why the alloy? It was more durable than lead alone, but melted at around the same temperature. And was readily available. As were the table-top brazier, pots and ladles required to melt and pour the alloy. They were the same equipment that was used to make lead musket balls: Mainz was one of Germany's centers of firearm manufacture. If you owned a musket, you needed to know how to make your own lead bullets: Gutenberg could have purchased the lead casting gear at his local market.
Chinese and Korean typefaces used melted bronze and clay molds. This meant that it took higher heat to melt the bronze, longer cooling times, and the molds had to be destroyed after the metal had been cast. Gutenberg had created a modification of musket ball mass production. One tech could crank out letter block after letter block as needed. If a new character was needed, an engraver would just have make a new punch and punch it into a bar of soft copper, put it in the mold and pour in the melted alloy, count to ten and there is your new character that is the same height and width as the rest of your typeface.
Fun fact, we call them upper- and lower-case because the letters were organized in literal cases and stacked so that the printers could get to the letters that they needed, when they assembled the layout. The case for the capital letters was stacked on top of the case for the smaller letters. Hence, the upper-case and the lower-case.
Once the typeface was created, it took the printers an hour or two to lay out the letters prior to printing a page. But, once the letters were laid out, a thousand pages could be printed as easily as one. And here, at the center of a perfect storm, stood Gutenberg. The typeface was inked with the new gel like ink, the linen rag paper was laid over the top and slightly moistened to help the ink stick to it, the assembly was pushed under the press, which was a modified linen press; which, of course, was a modified wine press. The paper was evenly pressed onto the inky letters with a single pull of a lever. The assemble was rolled back and the paper removed and checked for a complete press. Another sheet was put in place and the process was repeated. 30 seconds per page, every page. As many as you need. It is estimated that by 1500, a million books were printed using Gutenberg's method, throughout Europe. The press was portable, as were the typeface cases. You could put in on a cart and move it anywhere they made paper and set up your own print house. It was like printing money.
Unfortunately. Gutenberg never saw any of that money. Gutenberg, and his new partners, two men named Fust and Shoeffer, entered into a contract to mass produce indulgences for the Church in order to raise the funds for a major project to produce 180 bibles, old and new testaments, with hand painted illumination: 40 on actual vellum. Midway through the bible project, Gutenberg's investors called in their debts and Gutenberg had to give up all of his shares in the bible project as well as his printing equipment. Fust and Shoeffer completed the project and made improvements to the printing press, and made a fortune. Gutenberg was a broken man and never really recovered. He returned home and, for his invention, was given a title and a generous pension. But by then there were too many print houses cranking out too many books for the inventor to compete against his own invention. Gutenberg never saw the riches of his idea, but his name is the byword for printing throughout the world. The Renaissance, as well as our modern world, could never have occurred without his idea.