Little Bits of History

August 24

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 24, 2017

1456: The earliest date we have for a Gutenberg Bible is today. Also called the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible, or B42, this was the first major book printed in Europe using the mass-produced moveable metal type. Printing goes back to very early times, if we include the duplication of images by means of stamps. These woodblock images were used in the Far East and were in use in the first century AD. Movable type was in use in China around 1040. They switched from woodblocks to porcelain but that was changed to clay, probably because of cost. Neither became popular. Chinese characters are numerous and creating all the pieces was prohibitive. By 1377, this was mastered and was described by French scholar Henri-Jean Martin. It was very similar to Johannes Gutenberg’s system.

Gutenberg was not just a printer. He was also a blacksmith and goldsmith which gave him access to methods and tools. Around 1439, through a series of investment catastrophes, Gutenberg found himself with debt and no way to repay it. He claimed he had a “secret” to share and there has been speculation it was the idea of movable type printing. Between 1450 and 1455, Gutenberg printed several texts many of which are unknown to us today. We may surmise they were done by Gutenberg by comparing fonts but there is no imprint or date given for these earliest works.

By the time Gutenberg got around to printing a Bible, he had as many as 100,000 letters available to create the pages. Setting up a page could take up to half a day. Then the press would require loading and inking, no small feat in itself as well as individually pulling the impressions and setting up the sheets to dry. There is speculation that Gutenberg and his partner, Johann Fust, had up to 25 craftsmen working to create the massive Bible. While we don’t have an accurate way to know how many of these Bibles were printed (numbers range from 158 to 180 copies), there are 49 copies (or substantial portions of copies) remaining in existence today. They are considered to be one of the most valuable books in the world even though no complete copies have been sold since 1978.

France is in ownership of four of the Bibles and the earliest date inscribed on any of them is this date. It is for the first volume of the Bible with the second volume dated August 15, 1456. This was the date the rubricator and binder finished his process and completed the work. Germany, home of the printing press and Gutenberg, has the most extant copies of the Bible at thirteen. The US owns eleven and the UK has eight. Vatican City, Russia, and Spain have two each with the remaining copies singly dispersed around the planet. There are also 36-line versions of the Bible printed and it is not known if these are a second run for Gutenberg or the work of another printer. Today’s Gutenberg Bibles are almost all owned by universities or other scholarly institutions. Few remain with religious institutions.

We can put television in its proper light by supposing that Gutenberg’s great invention had been directed at printing only comic books. – Robert M. Hutchins

I owe all my knowledge to the German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg! – Mehmet Murat Ildan

The solution was eventually found by Johannes Gutenberg, who made the breakthrough that finally established printing as the communication technology of the future. Similar ideas may have been under development around the same time in Prague and Haarlem. But in business, the key question is not about who else is in the race, it’s about who gets there first. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to make the new technology work, ensuring his place in any history of the human race. – Alister E. McGrath

Gutenberg made everybody a reader. Xerox makes everybody a publisher. – Marshall McLuhan



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