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Merchants kept their accounts in their heads. Even scholars literate in Latin used memory devices to remember what they had learned. One device involved visualizing a building with various rooms and architectural features, each representing a different store of knowledge. A university scholar imagined walking through this virtual building along a certain pathway to recall the contents of entire books for his lectures. Scribes, often monks living in monasteries, each labored for up to a year to copy a single book, usually in Latin.


The scribes copied books on processed calfskin called vellum and later on paper. These books were beautiful works of art. But they took a long time to make and were very costly. A printer arranges the types within a frame on a press to form words and then prints a page of writing. The types can be broken apart, moved around, and set to print other pages of writing.

This process was first developed in China about A. The Chinese language, however, consists of tens of thousands of characters that alone or together represent things or concepts. Movable type did not catch on in China because it took too long to reproduce multiple copies of the many thousands of characters needed for printing. The old method of artistic handwriting, called calligraphy, was often faster and more economical. In the Middle Ages, Europeans knew nothing about Chinese moveable-type printing. But by , European technology had all the components in place for a movable-type printing revolution.

This included paper, oil-based ink, metal alloys, casting methods, and presses used for centuries to make wine and olive oil. The Europeans had one key advantage over the Chinese in making movable-type printing preferable to hand copying. Latin, Greek, and all the other European languages were alphabet-based. They did not have tens of thousands of characters like Chinese.

The Europeans only had to produce types for a limited number of letters 26 in the case of English. To print an entire book, printers would have to make hundreds of precisely identical types for each letter. Someone had to invent a way to do this quickly. Johann Gutenberg was born around into one of the leading families of Mainz, Germany.

Mainz was a busy commercial port on the Rhine River. Some historians think that he learned how to make gold coins at the Mainz mint. In his mids, Gutenberg decided to look for better prospects upriver in the German town of Strasburg today Strasbourg, France. In Strasburg, he borrowed money from three men who became his partners in manufacturing and selling metal mirrors to religious pilgrims.

The pilgrims traveled to religious sites and used mirrors supposedly to capture the healing powers of holy objects. Outbreaks of the plague, however, were still occurring. A new outbreak interrupted the pilgrimages, and the mirror business failed. Apparently, Gutenberg had spent most of his years in Strasburg experimenting with a method of using movable type to print books. With no knowledge of printing from China and no one else in Europe to help him, Gutenberg worked alone to invent a unique movable-type printing process.

This mold enabled him to mass-produce identical types for each letter of the Latin alphabet plus punctuation marks and symbols. He could reuse the types numerous times for different jobs. Gutenberg also experimented with ink and paper. He needed ink that dried quickly and did not smear. After trying numerous ingredients, he found the perfect ink by combining linseed oil and lampblack.

He also discovered that paper had to be a certain thickness and slightly dampened for the ink to stick properly.

Finally, be built a press that applied the exact pressure needed to print words clearly from the types onto paper. By , Gutenberg was back in Mainz. He borrowed money again to set up a printing workshop. In , he printed his first book, a brief Latin grammar for students.

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In exchange, the church forgave their sins, assuring admission into Heaven. Gutenberg, however, had a much bigger project in mind. Gutenberg could supply many identical copies of these Bibles by printing them.

But he needed more money to set up a second print shop. Already in debt to a Mainz businessman, Johann Fust, Gutenberg turned to him again for another loan.

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This time, however, Fust demanded that Gutenberg make him a partner and promise to repay all he owed in five years. Gutenberg hired craftsmen to make the Latin letter types, construct six presses, and manufacture the ink. He also purchased paper for printing most of the Bibles and vellum for a small, more expensive edition. He passed on the secrets of his invention to his master printer, Peter Schoffer.

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Gutenberg took at least five years to manufacture the types and equipment and print nearly Bibles. He grew obsessed with printing Bibles that would equal or exceed in accuracy and beauty those copied by scribes. The Gutenberg Bible consists of two columns of print on more than 1, pages. Unlike copies made by scribes, both columns are justified, aligned in a straight edge at the left and right margins, like the column of print you are reading right now. Gutenberg printed one page of the Bible before going on to the next.

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After page 10, he shifted from 40 to 42 lines of print per page. He was experimenting for ease of reading. Gutenberg printed most of the letters in black ink but some in red, which required pressing a page two times.

After the pages were printed, artists decorated large-sized letters and added colorful designs on the borders of certain pages. Skilled workers then sewed the pages of each Bible together into two volumes with covers.

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The Gutenberg Bible was a work of art and a wonder of technology. Up to 75 complete and partial copies still exist today, mainly in libraries and museums. You can view paper and vellum copies at the British Library web site. Tauris, , Google Scholar. CrossRef Google Scholar. Richard K. Serif Mardin Leiden: Brill, , I Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli, , Richard C. Martin and Mark R.