While Joan of Arc was busy rescuing France from the English, another
wonderful worker was busy in Germany. This was John Gutenberg,
who was born in Mainz.
The Germans--and most other people--think that he was the inventor
of the art of printing with movable types. And so in the cities of
Dresden and Mainz his countrymen have put up statues in his memory.
Gutenberg's father was a man of good family. Very likely the boy
was taught to read. But the books from which he learned were not
like ours; they were written by hand. A better name for them than
books is "manuscripts," which means "hand-writings."
While Gutenberg was growing up a new way of making books came into
use, which was a great deal better than copying by hand. It was
what is called block-printing. The printer first cut a block of
hard wood the size of the page that he was going to print. Then he
cut out every word of the written page upon the smooth face of his
block. This had to be very carefully done. When it was finished
the printer had to cut away the wood from the sides of every
letter. This left the letters raised, as the letters are in books
now printed for the blind.
The block was now ready to be used. The letters were inked, paper
was laid upon them and pressed down.
With blocks the printer could make copies of a book a great deal
faster than a man could write them by hand. But the making of the
blocks took a long time, and each block would print only one page.
Gutenberg enjoyed reading the manuscripts and block books that his
parents and their wealthy friends had; and he often said it was a
pity that only rich people could own books. Finally he determined
to contrive some easy and quick way of printing.
He did a great deal of his work in secret, for he thought it was
much better that his neighbors should know nothing of what he was
So he looked for a workshop where no one would be likely to find
him. He was now living in Strasburg, and there was in that city a
ruined old building where, long before his time, a number of monks
had lived. There was one room of the building which needed only a
little repairing to make it fit to be used. So Gutenberg got the
right to repair that room and use it as his workshop.
All his neighbors wondered what became of him when he left home in
the early morning, and where he had been when they saw him coming
back late in the twilight. Some felt sure that he must be a wizard,
and that he had meetings somewhere with the devil, and that the
devil was helping him to do some strange business.
Gutenberg did not care much what people had to say, and in his
quiet room he patiently tried one experiment after another, often
feeling very sad and discouraged day after day because his experiments
did not succeed.
At last the time came when he had no money left. He went back to
his old home, Mainz, and there met a rich goldsmith named Fust (or
Gutenberg told him how hard he had tried in Strasburg to find some
way of making books cheaply, and how he had now no more money to
carry on his experiments. Fust became greatly interested and gave
Gutenberg what money he needed. But as the experiments did not
at first succeed Fust lost patience. He quarreled with Gutenberg
and said that he was doing nothing but spending money. At last he
brought suit against him in the court, and the judge decided in
favor of Fust. So everything in the world that Gutenberg had, even
the tools with which he worked, came into Fust's possession.
But though he had lost his tools, Gutenberg had not lost his courage.
And he had not lost all his friends. One of them had money, and he
bought Gutenberg a new set of tools and hired a workshop for him.
And now at last Gutenberg's hopes were fulfilled. First of all it
is thought that he made types of hard wood. Each type was a little
block with a single letter at one end. Such types were a great
deal better than block letters. The block letters were fixed.
They could not be taken out of the words of which they were parts.
The new types were movable so they could be set up to print one
page, then taken apart and set up again and again to print any
number of pages.
But type made of wood did not always print the letters clearly and
distinctly, so Gutenberg gave up wood types and tried metal types.
Soon a Latin Bible was printed. It was in two volumes, each of
which had three hundred pages, while each of the pages had forty-two
lines. The letters were sharp and clear. They had been printed
from movable types of metal.
The Dutch claim that Lorenz Coster, a native of Harlem, in the
Netherlands, was the first person who printed with movable type.
They say that Coster was one day taking a walk in a beech forest
not far from Harlem, and that he cut bark from one of the trees
and shaped it with his knife into letters.
Not long after this the Dutch say Coster had made movable types
and was printing and selling books in Harlem.
The news that books were being printed in Mainz by Gutenberg went
all over Europe, and before he died printing-presses like his were
at work making books in all the great cities of the continent.
About twenty years after his death, when Venice was the richest of
European cities, a man named Aldus (Al'-dus) Manutius (Ma-nu'-tius)
established there the most famous printing house of that time.
He was at work printing books two years before Columbus sailed on
his first voyage. The descendents of Aldus continued the business
after his death for about one hundred years. The books published
by them were called "Aldine," from Aldus. They were the most
beautiful that had ever come from the press. They are admired and
valued to this day.