Travel: Mainz, the home of Gutenberg 

The information age began in this ancient town on the Upper Rhine


With the click of a mouse the 1,200 words in this column leave my home computer screen and two days later reappear in 17,200 copies of Pique Newsmagazine. It's a process we have come to take for granted but it wasn't always that easy to reproduce and spread the printed word. Some of us can remember the days of manual typewriters, whiteout and carbon paper, and the seemingly endless correcting and retyping before a clean copy was ready to be set into type. But even those quaint innovations of the pre-digital era would have seemed like miracles to the scribes of the 15 th century when the only way to reproduce a manuscript was to copy it by hand.

During a recent trip to Europe we stopped in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany, and visited the Gutenberg World Museum of Printing - a fascinating look back at the beginning of the information age we now live in. Johann Gutenberg, the man credited with starting it all, was born in Mainz around 1400. Not much is known about the man himself except that he trained as a goldsmith and, despite the momentous influence of his invention, spent most of his life on the brink of poverty, and died penniless in 1468.

Gutenberg began dabbling in metal work in the late 1420s and came up with the idea of casting letters into reusable type, but he was too poor to pursue his vision. Then, in 1448 he negotiated a loan of 800 gilders from Johann Fust, a wealthy Mainz entrepreneur. He used the money to build his first press and two years later, after another loan from Fust, he had a fully operational print shop and began cranking out textbooks and a variety of small items such as calendars. But his passion was the production of a bible, a project that soon absorbed all his time, most of his money, and the entire capacity of his shop.

By 1455 Gutenberg had produced 180 copies of his bible - a magnificent book with the text in two 42-line columns, its pages embellished with hand crafted ornamentation and icons. But he was also broke. Fust demanded his money back, Gutenberg had none, and the court awarded all of his assets including his print shop, to Fust in lieu of payment. During his lifetime Gutenberg received neither the financial reward nor the recognition that his invention warranted. A few years before his death he was made a "gentleman of the court," an honor that carried a meager stipend, just barely enough to keep him fed and clothed.

The lower floor of the World Printing Museum includes a working replica of Gutenberg's shop and Klaus, one of the museum curators, gave us a demonstration. Inking the plates, positioning a sheet of paper, and turning the giant wooden screw to press the plate onto the page was a laborious process that took several minutes, but for its day Gutenberg's printing machine was a technical marvel. Previously a scribe, commonly a Monk, might have laboured 20 years with brush and quill pen to produce a single copy of the bible.


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