How the first printing press changed the world through unintended consequences
Gutenberg was a lot of things, clever and conscientious—a consummate tinkerer with a knack for making the kind of incremental improvements and connections that can turn into great inventions. But he wasn’t out to change the world. He certainly didn’t want to undermine his church; Gutenberg was a pious man. And for all that mass reproduction of text realized epochal change, Gutenberg didn’t make his press for that purpose.
In 1450, Gutenberg started work on his first book. The Gutenberg Bible would be a copy of the same Vulgate bible translated in 4th century Rome and made ubiquitous in Europe by the efforts of Alcuin and Charlemagne. This version, created with Gutenberg's new movable-type system, would be perfect.
The press’s first typographical advantage that Gutenberg leveraged was justification. Given the luxury of spacing his letters before committing ink to page, Gutenberg was able to align the left and right edges of his text, without indents created by longer and shorter words. To fill the strong visual blocks created by justification, Gutenberg chose a Blackletter type, featuring narrower letters and using sharper, straighter, more angular lines than Alcuin’s Carolingian minuscule. Straight, vertical strokes combined with horizontal lines gave a printed page a woven, or textured, appearance, accentuated by Gutenberg's use of justification. The overall effect lent the type its name, Textualis, and left us with the enduring word, ‘text’.
For most copies, Gutenberg favoured a smooth, shiny paper. This presented a technical problem: mid-15th century water-based inks flowed over the surface of the paper, a trait ideal for writing script but poor for printing. Gutenberg therefore developed an oil-based ink. Oil-based paints had existed for centuries, but found new use in the 15th century, when naturalistic paintings became all the rage and artists required slower-drying paints to achieve a realistic look. Gutenberg followed suit, suspending carbon, copper, lead, and titanium in oils to make a new ink for his new printing machine.
His bibles were extravagantly expensive. Initially, Gutenberg printed red title headings but later, understanding that his machine couldn’t replace an artist’s touch, left these spaces blank for professional scribes and artists to add titles and illumination by hand. That Gutenberg prioritized perfection in making his bibles wasn’t lost on Pope Pius II, who praised their cleanliness and fidelity.
The care taken in these books reflected in the time it took to make them. Gutenberg first released his bibles in 1455, and probably only printed 180 copies. The process was not only slow, but expensive. In order to fund his endeavour, Gutenberg began printing indulgences as early as 1452. These boilerplate forms were part of a complicated theological system intended to guide sinners to salvation by repaying the debt of their sins through good deeds. Issued by a central authority, rationalization and mass production were a natural fit for indulgences, and they did a booming business. By the end of the 15th century, over 140 thousand copies of one single indulgence had been printed.
The trouble with indulgences had started centuries earlier, when commutation—a process that turned good deeds into cash donations—commercialized the practice. Secular rulers, happy to partake in the racket, allowed it under heavy taxation. In the 15th century, people began seeking indulgences for relatives who had already died, and unscrupulous pardoners, now in possession of mass-produced indulgences, were able to oblige.
In October 1517, driven to spiritual anguish by this practice, a Saxon friar wrote a series of theses to frame a debate on the selling of indulgences. Like Gutenberg, he was a pious man, committed to his church, not interested in revolution, only motivated by his own unease with the growing dissonance between the practice and spirit of his church. But like Johannes Gutenberg before him, Martin Luther’s pursuit of fidelity would spark changes far beyond what he intended. By the end of the year, hundreds of copies of his 95 theses had been reprinted and distributed. The Reformation was underway.
Gutenberg wouldn’t live to see any of this. A sort of latter-day Job, he lost his first press to a business partner, went bankrupt, and was exiled from Mainz. But he established new presses and resumed printing bibles, apparently oblivious to the enormous potential of his printing machine—a potential that was not lost on the subject of our next issue.