Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gutenberg's Hot Tip

"The printing press, as every schoolchild knows, was invented by Johann Gutenberg.  In fact, history may have given Gutenberg more credit than he deserves.  There is reason to believe that movable type was actually invented by a Dutchman named Laurens Janszoon Koster (or Coster) and that Gutenberg - about whom we know precious little - learned of the process only when one of Koster's apprentices ran off to Mainz in Germany with some of Koster's blocks and the two struck up a friendship.  Certainly it seems odd that a man who had for the first forty years of his life been an obscure stonemason and mirror polisher should suddenly have taken some blocks of wood and a wine press and made them into an invention that would transform the world.  What is certain is that the process took off with astonishing speed.  Between 1455, when Gutenberg's first bible was published, and 1500 more than 35,000 books were published in Europe."  Now that's the value of an original "hot tip" picked up from a guy met in a bar - or perhaps in this case a pew.  (But would the idea have passed muster in the Dragon's Den, one wonders?)  "None of this benefited Gutenberg a great deal - he had to sell his presses to one Johann Fust to pay his debts and died in straightened circumstances in 1468 ..."  Another fortune squandered on wine, women and song?  Did the Apprentice manage his money better than the Master?  And what of Koster, was he publishing books on tiddlywink strategy instead of what people were really after?  Quoted passages from Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue.