Dr. Annette Ludwig: Johannes Gutenberg – Man of the Millennium: Printing conquer the world from Mainz

Mainz, the capital of Rhineland –Palatinate, did not become a major media ­location for no reason. The most famous resident of Mainz of all time, Johannes Gensfleisch vom Hofe zum Gutenberg, was the first to write history here as the first “start-up media entrepreneur”.

Gutenberg printed his 42-line Bible in Mainz between 1452 and 1455. It was the first book in the western world to be printed with movable, reusable metal letters and the first production printing in printing history with probably 180 copies, of which 49 are still in existence worldwide.

With his inventions and developments of everything needed for the printing process, from manual casting tools through type cases and printing balls to presses, Gutenberg became the pioneer of a new technology. The enterprising inventor established a rapidly growing business segment and led the transition from manuscripts to printed books, thereby laying the foundations of the media revolution and mass communications of our age.

In 1470, books and other media were being printed in 17 locations in Europe – by 1500 this figure had increased to over 250 cities. Over the centuries, the manual setting and mechanical typesetting techniques Gutenberg had developed maintained their technological lead without almost no competition until they were completely supplanted in the second half of the 20th century by high-speed printing machinery and thereafter by advancing digitisation and virtual processes.

The name “Gutenberg” can be seen in Mainz everywhere one goes. Several monuments, a square, a grammar school, roads, pubs and a shopping centre all bear the name “Gutenberg”, as does the city’s Johannes Gutenberg University, the International Gutenberg Society (which awards the Gutenberg Prize every two years), the Gutenberg Foundation, the Gutenberg Book Guild and the Gutenberg Chamber Choir.

The “World Museum of Printing” is a place of remembrance, a treasure trove of book art and an unusual place of learning, to which the “Printshop” – the Gutenberg Museum museum’s educational workshop – makes a considerable contribution. Over 125,000 guests from all over the world visit the museum every year, about which Umberto Eco, the 2014 Gutenberg Prize winner, said “The road to the true birthplace of the printed book leads to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. For bibliophiles, or book-lovers, this is like a pilgrimage to Jeru­salem or Mecca.” In the replica Gutenberg workshop, demonstrations are given every day on how books were printed in Guten­berg’s days. The walk-in safe contains two copies of the Gutenberg Bible – the so-called Solms-Laubach copy and the completely preserved, two-volume Shuckburgh copy, both of which are magnets for visitors.

The name Gutenberg is known all over the world but the man himself remains largely obscure. His exact date of birth – somewhere around 1400 – is not known. No contemporary picture of him or original tools or anything personal have been handed down and his name only appears in a few documents and court documents.

The Chinese and Koreans printed with movable letters made of clay, wood or metal long before Gutenberg, but they used completely different processes in their type systems – and for completely different motives. Gutenberg had developed a new technique. He had already tried out series production of standardised individual parts in Strasbourg and produced a pilgrim’s mirror for a pilgrimage. These were the be­­ginnings of the mysterious major project of “aventur und kunst” (adventure and art), which was perfected in Mainz. This took money, lots of money. In order to finance the printing of the Bible, Gutenberg had to take out two loans of 800 guilders each from the Mainz merchant Johannes Fust. This caused an argument in the workshop. As a result, the printing shop employees complained to Fust, who sided with Gutenberg’s journeyman Peter Schöffer against Gutenberg. Fust and the journeyman found fame and fortune.

We can only speculate over was Gutenberg did then and how and for what he used the little capital he had left. He kept printing and passed on and sold his expertise for his financial benefit. He helped build a printing shop and print a Bible in Bamberg and trained a printer for the king of France. We know about the last years of Gutenberg’s life or his death in Mainz – probably on 3 February 1468 – and his funeral in the long-since disused Franciscan church; however, his remains have disappeared.

Gutenberg’s achievements and influence are of global significance. In 2000, American journalists voted him the “Man of the Millennium”, and almost every child in Korea knows his name: in 2016, the new travelling exhibition of the Gutenberg Museum entitled “Progress! Fresh of the Press!” showed a large public in several cities in South Korea the innovations and problems to which Gutenberg’s invention gave rise. New jobs were created for printers, editors, authors, illustrators, wood en­gravers, booksellers, type-cutters and type-casters. Rulers, reformers and revolutionaries made use of printing; literacy, general education and participation in political processes increased; and knowledge became democratised.

For the Gutenberg Museum, the media transform­ation from Gutenberg to “Google” age brings new and exciting tasks. It is in the middle of an awakening and an upheaval to becoming “the museum of the future”, with new architecture and a new exhibition concept for presenting its assorted exhibits appropriately. As the press glowing said, the newly-established (2011) special focus on typography “catapulted” the Museum into the 21st century with several prize-winning special exhibitions. The history of type, printing, books and media, their discovery, production and sales channels is the key to understanding our globalised information society. The incomparable “Gutenberg success story” continues.

Dr. Annette Ludwig
Dr Annette Ludwig studied art history, contemporary German literature and the history of architecture at the university of Karlsruhe. After working as a curator, she was appointed director of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz in 2010. since 2008, she has been a lecturer at the Centre for Applied Cultural Sciences at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (formerly the university of Karlsruhe) and at the Academy of Continued Science Education. She is a member of various committees, including being chairwoman of the Society of Bibliophiles.