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Johann Gutenberg

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(Henne Gänsfleisch zur Laden, commonly called Gutenberg).

Inventor of printing; born about 1400; died 1467 or 1468 at Mainz. Gutenberg was the son of Friele (Friedrich) Gänsfleisch and Else Wyrich. His cognomen was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors "zu Laden, zu Gutenberg". The house of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century. From the middle of the fourteenth century there were two branches, the line to which the inventor belongs and the line of Sorgenloch. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it scions claimed an hereditary position as so-called Hausgenossen , or retainers of the household, of the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases. Of Johann Gutenberg's father, Friele Gänsfleisch, we know only that he was married in 1386 to Else Wyrich, daughter of a burgher of Mainz, Werner Wyrich zum steinern Krame (at the sign of the pottery shop), and that he died in 1419, his wife dying in 1433. Of their three children — Friele (d. 1447), Else, and Johann — the last-named (the inventory of typography) was born some time in the last decade of the fourteenth century, presumably between 1394 and 1399, at Mainz in the Hof zum Gutenberg, known today as Christophstrasse, 2.

All that is known of his youth is that he was not in Mainz in 1430. It is presumed that he migrated for political reasons to Strasburg, where the family probably had connections. The first record of Gutenberg's sojourn in Strasburg dates from 14 March, 1434. He took a place befitting his rank in the patrician class of the city, but he also at the same time joined the goldsmiths' guild — quite an exceptional proceeding, yet characteristic of his untiring technical activity. The trades which Gutenberg taught his pupils and associates, Andreas Dritzehn, Hans Riffe, and Andreas Heilmann, included gem-polishing, the manufacture of looking-glasses and the art of printing, as we learn from the records of a lawsuit between Gutenberg and the brothers Georg and Klaus Dritzehn. In these records, Gutenberg appears distinctly as technical originator and manager of the business. Concerning the "new art", one witness states that, in his capacity of goldsmith, he had supplied in 1436 "printing requisites" to the value of 100 gulden; mention is also made of a press constructed by Konrad Saspach, a turner, with peculiar appliances (screws). The suit was therefore obviously concerned with experiments in typography, but no printed matter that can be traced to these experiments has so far come to light.

The appearance at Avignon of the silversmith Waldvogel, who taught "artificial writing" there in 1444, and possessed steel alphabets, a press with iron screws and other contrivances, seems to have had some connection with the experiments of Gutenberg. As of Gutenberg's, so of Waldvogel's early experiments, no sample has been preserved. In the year 1437 Gutenberg was sued for "breach of promise of marriage " by a young patrician girl of Strasburg, Ennel zur eisernen Tür. There is nothing to show whether this action led to a marriage or not, but Gutenberg left Strasburg, presumably about 1444. He seems to have perfected at enormous expense his invention shortly afterwards, as is shown by the oldest specimens of printing that have come down to us ("Weltgerichtsgedicht", i.e. the poem on the last judgment, and the "Calendar for 1448"). The fact that Arnolt Gelthuss, a relative of Gutenberg, lent him 150 gulden in the year 1448 at Mainz points to the same conclusion. In 1450 Gutenberg formed a partnership with the wealthy burgher, Johann Fust of Mainz, for the purpose of completing his contrivance and of printing the so-called "42-line Bible", a task which was finished in the years 1453-1455 at the Hof zum Humbrecht (today Schustergasse, 18, 20). Fust brought suit in 1455 to recover the 2000 gulden he had advanced and obtained judgment for a portion of the amount with interest. As a result of Gutenberg's insolvency, the machinery and type which he had made and pledged to Fust became the property of the latter. In addition to the types for the 42-line Bible, the mortgage covered the copious stock of type which had evidently been already prepared for the edition of the Psalter, which was printed by Fust and Schäffer in August, 1457. This included new type in two sizes, as well as the world-famous initial letters with their ingenious contrivance for two-color printing. About 1457 Gutenberg also parted with his earliest-constructed founts of type, which he had made for the 36-line Bible, and which were in existence as early as the fourth decade of the century. Long before this Bible was printed the type had been used in an edition of the "Weltgerichtsgedicht", in the "Calendar for 1448", in editions of Donatus, and various other printed works. Most of this type fell into the possession of Albrecht Pfister in Bamberg. Gutenberg next manufactured a new printer's outfit with the assistance he received from Conrad Humery, a distinguished and wealthy doctor of law, leader of the popular party, and chancellor of the council. This outfit comprised a set of small types fashioned after the round cursive handwriting used in books at that time and ornamented with an extraordinary number of ligatures. The type was used in the so-called "Catholicon" (grammar and alphabetic lexicon) in the year 1460, and also in several small books printed in Eltville down to the year 1472 by the brothers Echtermünze, relatives of Gutenberg.

Little more is known of Gutenberg. We are aware that his declining years were spent in the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau, to whose suite he was appointed on 18 January, 1465. The distinction thus conferred on him carried with it allowances of clothing and other necessities which saved him from actual want. In all likelihood he died at Mainz towards the end of 1467 or the beginning of 1468, and was buried probably as a tertiary in the Franciscan church, no longer in existence.

A cloud of deep obscurity thus conceals for the most part the life of the inventor, his personality, the time and place of his invention, and particularly the part he personally took in the production of the printed works that have come down to us from this period. On the other hand, expert research has thrown much light on the printed works connected with the name of Gutenberg, and has established more definitely the nature of his invention. Mainly from the technical examination of the impressions of the earliest Gutenberg productions, the "Poem of the Last Judgment" and the "Calendar for 1448", it has been shown that he effected substantial improvements in methods of printing and in its technical auxiliaries, especially in the printer's ink and in the building of printing presses. Of course he had to invent neither letter-cutting, nor the die, nor the mode of obtaining impressions from the die. All these had been long known, and were in common use in Gutenberg's time, as is shown by the steel dies of the goldsmiths and bookbinders, as well as the punches used for stamping letters and ornamental designs in the striking of coins and seals. The mechanical manifolding of handwriting also had been known for a long time. The prints of the so-called Formschneider (that is, engravers on wood ), especially the playing-cards, pictures of the saints, ad block books, prove beyond question that writing had been reproduced in manifold by means of woodcuts as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century. But with woodcutting and its technic Gutenberg's invention had nothing to do; Gutenberg was a goldsmith, a worker in metals, and a lapidary, and his invention both in conception and execution shows the worker in metals. Gutenberg multiplied the separate types in metal moulds. The types thus produced he built in such a way that they might be aligned like the manuscript he was copying.

His aim, technically and æsthetically so extremely difficult, was the mechanical reproduction of the characters used in the manuscripts, i.e. the books of the time. The works printed by Gutenberg plainly prove that the types used in them were made by a casting process fundamentally the same as the method of casting by hand in vogue today [1910]. The letter-patterns were cut on small steel rods termed patrices , and the dies thus made were impressed on some soft metal, such as copper, producing the matrices , which were cast in the mould in such a manner as to form the "face" and "body" of the type at one operation. The printing type represents therefore a multiplicity of cast reproductions of the original die, or patrix. In addition to this technical process of type-founding, Gutenberg found himself confronted with a problem hardly less difficult, namely, the copying of the beautiful calligraphy found in the books of the fifteenth century, constantly bearing in mind that it must be possible to engrave and to cast the individual forms, since the types, when set, must be substantially replicas of the model. The genius of Gutenberg found a brilliant solution to this problem in all its complicated details. Even in the earliest types he made (e.g. in the Calendar for 1448), we can recognize not only the splendid reproduction of the actual forms of the original handwriting, but also the extremely artistic remodeling of individual letters necessitated by technical requirements. In other words, we see the work of a calligraphic artist of the highest order. He applied the well-tested rules of the calligraphist's art to the casting of types, observing in particular the rudimentary principle of always leaving the same space between the vertical columns of the text. Consequently Gutenberg prepared two markedly different forms of each letter, the normal separate form, and the compound or linked form which, being joined closely to the type next to it, avoids gaps. It is significant that this unique kind of letter is to be found in only four types, and these four are associated with Gutenberg. No typographer in the fifteenth century was able to follow the ideal of the inventor, and consequently research attributes to Gutenberg types of this character, namely, the two Bible and the two Psalter types. Especially in the magnificent design and in the technical preparation of the Psalter of 1457 do we recognize the pure, ever-soaring inventive genius of Gutenberg which achieved so marked a technical improvement in the two-coloured Psalter initials. The precision and richness that had now become possible in colour-printing effected a substantial advance over the standard displayed in other editions.

Gutenberg's invention spread rapidly after the political catastrophe of 1462 (the conquest of the city of Mainz by Adolf of Nassau). It met in general with a ready, and an enthusiastic reception in the centres of culture. The names of more than 1000 printers, mostly of German origin, have come down to us from the fifteenth century. In Italy we find well over 100 German printers, in France 30, in Spain 26. Many of the earliest printers outside of Germany had learned their art in Mainz, where they were known as "goldsmiths". Among those who were undeniably pupils of Gutenberg, and who probably were also assistants in the Gutenberg-Fust printing house were (besides Schäffer ), Numeister, Keffer, and Ruppel; Mentel in Strasburg (before 1460), Pfister in Bamberg (1461), Sweynheim in Subiaco and Rome (1464), and Johann von Speyer in Venice (1469).

The invention of Gutenberg should be classed with the greatest events in the history of the world. It caused a revolution in the development of culture, equalled by hardly any other incident in the Christian Era. Facility in disseminating the treasure of the intellect was a necessary condition for the rapid development of the sciences in modern times. Happening as it did just at the time when science was becoming more secularized and its cultivation no longer resigned almost entirely to the monks, it may be said that the age was pregnant with this invention. Thus not only is Gutenberg's art inseparable from the progress of modern science, but it has also been an indispensable factor in the education of the people at large. Culture and knowledge, until then considered aristocratic privileges peculiar to certain classes, were popularized by typography, although in the process it unfortunately brought about an internal revolution in the intellectual world in the direction of what is profane and free from restraint.

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