Gutenberg or Zuckerburg?

There are just a few inventions or events that have truly and profoundly changed the course of history impacting the whole world. You can point to computer technology and the internet in our time, and we can add Mark Zuckerbeg and Facebook to the list of world changing advancements. The world will never be the same because of them.

There was an even greater event almost 700 years ago that changed all of human history. Thanks to a tradesman with varied experience, a nondescript, hardworking man had a moment of inspiration that he compared to “a light going on.”

Johann Gutenberg had spent his youth and adulthood being educated, attending the University in Erfurt and working in the various trades of goldsmith, gem polisher and developer of mirror-like trinkets. Nothing he did would indicate greatness.

How were books made back in the day? People copied by hand, letter by letter, page by page until books were written. Have you seen the size of a Bible or the last book of the Harry Potter series? It took monks years to hand-copy a single Bible. There were no delete or edit buttons like a computer! If you made a mistake, you started all over. Printed material was rare, to say the least.

A man named Johann Gutenberg began to investigate the prospect of developing a new way to print with movable letters put on a plate that was inked and pressed to paper. What little printing existed in his day was cumbersome and expensive with set type that was only usable for one project. Gutenberg heard of some ideas that others had experimented with and took it a step further.

Imagine your hand bleeding because you were creating metal molds of tens of thousands, some estimate 100,000+ individual letters and characters that would be used to create the words that would be “inked”, pressed to paper, ending with the printed page!

Johann put everything he had into his idea. He spent years working and perfecting his plans. When all his resources and some contributed by his family ran out, he contacted what we would call today, a venture capitalist for the funds to continue.

His investor, a modern-day “VC” was a wealthy businessman, Johann Fust, a shrewd man. He saw the potential in what Gutenberg was trying to do. With the funds from Fust, Gutenberg was able to complete the first printing press with movable type and fulfill his dream. The press made printing much more economical. It allowed books, flyers and pamphlets to be mass produced reusing the letters that would be inked to print pages.

Gutenberg’s dream job was to print the Bible. He printed other things to help provide the funds to fulfill this passion. The majority of the funds from Fust went to attain his dream. In time, the Bible began to be printed and became known as the 42-Line Gutenberg Bible in 1455-56 A.D. Imagine…Gutenberg had to hand place all the letters for the type to print the whole Bible, 42 lines a page!

(Today a Gutenberg 42-Line Bible would expect to be valued at $25 million or more. Single pages have sold for $25,000. There were several hundred of the first printed Bibles. Only a few exist today.)

One “small problem” for Gutenberg was that he was unable to pay back what he owed to Fust. In short order and with court backing, Fust took over Gutenberg’s operations and became quite rich from the sale of Bibles.

Gutenberg saw his dream fulfilled, but received little recognition and even less profit from all his work. It took 10 years for Gutenberg to get the recognition for his accomplishment. He died just three years later. His fame and contribution was only fully recognized after he was gone.

The printing press and the ability to eventually mass produce the Bible and other books was a huge event that changed the course of history affecting all of humanity. It was a huge domino that fell. As a result, other historic events and revolutionary ideas came about. More people were now able to be educated and all kinds of information was accessible to the masses

Like the internet of today, communication was power. New ideas would spring up that would lead to the Reformation, the Renaissance, and to the end of the Dark Ages. Printed material was vital to these “revolutions.” No other event in history, to that point or now, can compare to the impact the printing press had on the course of human events. Well maybe…. in a hundred years or so, we moderns may look at the computer and technology, and say it had as great or greater an impact as the printing press.