Image Gutenberg page beside illuminated page

Gutenberg the entrepreneur

Image Guttenberg and scribed text

On the left is a page from a Gutenberg Bible, c 1460; on the right, the same passage in an earlier, hand-copied, illuminated medieval manuscript.


“If you could meet anybody from history, who would it be?”

“Oh, that’s easy—Johannes Gutenberg.”

“Um … who?”

Answers to that question usually include names like Lincoln, Jesus, Roosevelt, Churchill. But never Gutenberg. At least not that I’ve heard.

That’s unfortunate. Johannes Gutenberg of 15-century Mainz (near the western border of present-day Germany) was one of those rare people who split history into 2 parts: before him and after him. He invented not only the printing press that changed the world but also all the necessary pieces and parts to make the printing press work: the 1st printer’s ink (actually an oil-based varnish that wouldn’t run all over the page), cast-metal pieces of movable type, cases that held the pieces of metal type in place so they wouldn’t puncture the paper.

Plus, he did more than make tools. He created manufacturing, business and marketing processes to improve quality, maximize efficiency, smooth the supply chain and sell Bibles.

Yes, sell Bibles. Gutenberg was as much entrepreneur as inventor. And when it came to satisfying customer expectations, he was, well, nimble.

Experience forms expectation

In the earliest production runs, he pressed ink on each page twice—1st with black ink, then with red chapter headings of 3 or 4 lines. But he soon learned that the 2-press method was both costly in time and unsatisfying to customers. 15th-century book readers—all Latin-literate elites—expected styles in their books his invention couldn’t produce: elaborate illustrations, huge drop caps in gold or silver, and red or blue flourishes throughout to mark new chapters, even verses. All the characteristics of illuminated manuscripts, hand-copied and beautifully illustrated by scribes laboring for years on a single book. A Bible of black text with a touch of red was too plain.

“We can do this,” I hear Gutenberg saying. “We can give them what they want—only better!”

Image Gutenberg with spaces

His next move was ingenious. He began printing his Bibles’ pages only in black ink—thus saving time—but with large spaces for illuminations throughout the text. Customers could now purchase a printed Bible and commission artisans to fill it with all the design flourishes 15th-century, Latin-literate elites were used to.

Gutenberg’s tool made new rules

Plus, those customers got something extra: greatly improved accuracy, readability and availability. Gutenberg’s press printed 180 Bibles—with no copyist errors—faster than it took a group of scribes to produce one by hand. And the end product displayed a regularity of style impossible to achieve by hand. Consistent fonts, crisp justification, double line spaces cueing the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, perfectly rectangular margins and gutters—these styles, only possible with Gutenberg’s machine and more sophisticated ones to follow, became rules. Never again would the artful messiness of hand-copied, illuminated manuscripts be acceptable book style.

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