OF THE INVENTION OF TYPOGRAPHY, OR THE ART OF MOVEABLE LETTERS, AND THE INVENTION OF THE PRINTING-PRESS.
The difficulty and tediousness of cutting the letters in the text of the old block-books, and a perception of the advantages that might be derived from printing books – for which there was already, in the earlier part of the fifteenth century, a great and increasing demand – from moveable letters, which, after having used to compose the text of one book, might be distributed, and re-composed for the text of another, suggested the invention of typography; while the slowness and inconvenience of the method of taking impressions by means of friction, on one side of the paper only, suggested the invention of the printing-press.
The first attempts to render practicable those two distinct principles in the process of printing – namely, the setting up of the text in the moveable letters, and the printing of it by means of a press – appear to have been made at Strasburg, about 1435, by the same individual, John Gutemburg, a German of noble family, and a native of Mentz.
The evidence of his having made such attempts is contained in the records of a suit instituted against him at Strasburg, in 1438-1439, by the two brothers of one of his partners in the “new invention;” and the evidence of his having at length succeeded in carrying his plans to effect, in conjunction with John Faust and Peter Scheffer, at Mentz about 1450, is also contained in the record of another suit which was instituted against him by his partner, John Faust, at Mentz in 1455.
The evidence afforded by those records is confirmed by the account which the learned Trithemius gives of the first invention of typography, by Gutemburg, in his “Annales Hirsaugienses,” a work which he finished in 1514.
Trithemius says that he had his information about thirty years before, that is about 1484, from Peter Scheffer, who, by his invention of the mode of cutting punches and casting the types, contributed chiefly to the perfection of the art of printing, as then practised.
The object of the suit brought against Gutemburg at Strasburg in 1438, by George and Nicholas Drytzehn, was to compel him either to refund the money advanced to him by their late brother, Andrew Drytzehn, or to admit them as partners in his new invention in their brother’s place.
Though Gutemburg wished to keep his invention secret, and though it be not specifically named nor explained in the record of suit, yet from the depositions of some of the witnesses, considered with reference to Gutemburg’s subsequent connection with Faust and Scheffer, there can be no reasonable doubt of its having been a project for printing books from moveable types by means of a press.
From the evidence of the witnesses examined in this cause, the record of which is still preserved at Strasburg, it appears that Gutemburg was not only unwilling to admit the heirs of his deceased partner, Andrew Drytzehn, to occupy his place, but that he also wished to keep secret the “wonderful art,” the working out of which appears to have been the chief object of the partnership. That this “wonderful art,” was typography, or the art of printing, by means of a press, from moveable letters, appears to be clearly established by the following extracts from the evidence:-
Lawrence Beildeck, Gutemburg’s servant, deposes, that, after the death of Andrew Drytzehn, he was sent by his master to Nicholas Drytzehn to request him not to show the press which he had in his house to any person, and that he, Beildeck, was further ordered by his master to undo the press, which was fastened with two screws, so that the “pieces” which were in it should separate or fall asunder, and afterwards so to put the pieces in the press that no person might understand them.
Conrad Saspach, the person who made the press, received a similar order from Andrew Heilman, another one of Gutemburg’s partners, and the terms in which it was conveyed –
“Take the pieces out of the press and distribute them,”
are identical with the technical terms used by German printers to signify the pages in a form – and the word zerlegen has still with them the same meaning as the work “distribute” has amongst English printers.
It has been stated that Gutemburg’s first essays in the typographic art were made with wooden types: but though the assertion may be true, there appears to be good reason for concluding that his experiments at Strasburg, when in partnership with Drytzehn, were made with metal types; for it appears that a quantity of lead was purchased on account of the partnership; and Hans Dünne, a goldsmith, deposes that about three years previously, he had done work to the amount of a hundred guilders for Gutemburg on account of printing – trucken – alone.
The goldsmiths of that period, it is to be observed, were also engravers, although their engravings were not executed for the purpose of taking impressions of them, but for the ornament of the articles on which they were made, such as gold and silver cups and other articles for the more wealthy of the laity, and censers, chalices and, more especially paxes, for the service of the church.
As Hans Dünne, the goldsmith and engraver, had done so much work for Gutemburg on the account of printing, it is difficult to conceive on what he could have been employed, unless it were in cutting letters, and those letters too of metal, as is rendered probable from the fact of the purchase of lead.
The decision of the judges on the suit instituted against Gutemburg by the brothers of his deceased partner affords no additional facts relative to the origin of printing.
It was simply to this effect:
that as, by the articles of partnership, Gutemburg was bound to repay a hundred florins to Andrew Drytzehn’s heir in the event of his death, but as eighty-five florins of capital which Andrew Drytzehn was to have brought in remained unpaid, Gutemburg was to pay the balance of fifteen florins to George and Nicholas Drytzehn; and when this sum was paid, they were to have no further claim to a partnership.
This decision was dated 12th December, 1439.
From the evidence adduced, it appears that as early as 1436, Gutemburg had conceived the idea of the “wonderful art,” from which he expected to derive great profits, but which appears to have enriched him only with posthumous fame; and that at the time of his partner’s death, which happened about the 27th December, 1438, he had made such progress to the completion of his plan as to have a press constructed, and certain “pieces,” or pages, of letter set up.
What further progress he made in his invention at Strasburg, or whether he succeeded there in rendering it practically available for the purpose of printing books, is unknown; for though there are several early typographic works still in existence which are supposed to have been printed by Gutemburg whilst making his first essays in the art at Strasburg or not, it seems almost certain that he had not succeeded there in rendering his invention profitably or conveniently practicable.
Gutemburg appears to have returned from Strasburg to his native city, Mentz, about 1444.
Towards the latter end of that year he there entered into partnership with John Faust, a goldsmith, for the purpose of printing books, Faust supplying the necessary capital. Scheffer, who had been a writer, or clerk, became associated with them in their endeavours to perfect the art, not originally as partner in the concern, but as a person employed by Faust. Scheffer, who subsequently married Faust’s daughter and succeeded him in the business, completed Gutemburg’s idea, and removed the chief difficulty which impeded the easy application of the new art, – namely, the tediousness of cutting the form of every single letter, – by his invention of the method of cutting punches and casting the letters from matrices.
In 1455, Faust, apparently with the view of obtaining the entire control of the business, instituted a process against Gutemberg for the recovery of a sum of 2020 florins, including interest, on account of money which he had advanced, but which, it appears, had not all been expended on the printing establishment.
Gutemberg, in his answer, demurred to a sum of 800 florins, as it had been expended in the purchase of printing materials, which were conditionally assigned to Faust as a security for the money.
He objected also to the claim for interest, but declared that he was ready to render Faust an account of any other money which he had advanced. The decision of the judges was, however, against Gutemberg, who was required to repay to Faust all the money that he had received of him, except such as had been expended in the business, together with interest, should Faust make oath or produce evidence that he himself had borrowed at interest the money which he had advanced.
Faust having sworn that he had so borrowed a sum of 1550 florins, which he had paid over to Gutemberg, a notarial act, similar to what is called “judgement” in our courts of law, was signed against Gutemberg on the 6th November, 1455.
This produced a dissolution of the partnership; for Gutemberg, not being able to pay the money, the whole of the printing establishment became the property of Faust.
It has not been clearly ascertained which was the book first printed by Gutemburg and Faust, nor, indeed, that any book was finished by them during their partnership.
There is, however, good reason to believe that at the time of their separation considerable progress had been made in an edition of the Bible, which appears to have been finished in eight months, at the furthest, from the date of the notarial act which terminated the partnership; for in a copy of this Bible, bound in two volumes folio, now preserved in the Royal Library at Paris, there is, in the first volume, a memorandum, written by Henry Cremer, Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Mentz, stating that it was illuminated and rubricated by him on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24), 1456: and in the second volume there is another memorandum by the same person, stating that it was illuminated, bound, and finished by him on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15), 1456.
To “Illuminate” a book, in the language of that period, was to insert in their proper places large ornamental capital letters, and to decorate the margins with flowered borders and fanciful devices, usually in colours and gold; whilst to “rubricate” was to mark the smaller capitals, the beginnings of chapters, and particular paragraphs, with red ink. In many early printed books, a blank space used to be left for the large initial letters, which were afterwards drawn in colours by the illuminator.
John Trithemius, Abbot of the Monastery of St. James, at Wurtzburg, who had his information from Peter Scheffer, says, in the account of the invention of printing, contained in his
“great difficulties attended the first establishment of this art; for having begun to print a Bible, they found that they had expended upwards of 4000 florins before they had completed the third quaternion.”
The quaternion was what is now called a gathering of four sheets. The Bible illuminated by Henry Cremer was in all probability a copy of the edition mentioned by Trithemius.
Though no book has been discovered bearing the imprint of Gutemburg, there can be no doubt of his having established a printing office in Mentz, or in its vicinity, after the dissolution of his partnership with Faust.
He does not appear to have printed many books; and of those that are supposed to have proceeded from his press, the “Catholicon” of Johannes de Balbis appears to be the best authenticated.
On 17th January, 1465, Adolphus, Archbishop of Mentz, appointed Gutemberg one of his courtiers, with the same allowance of clothing as the other nobles attending his court, and other privileges and exemptions. It is not known whether he continued to print after this time or no.
He only enjoyed his appointment for about three years, for he appears to have died about the commencement of 1468. The precise day of his decease is not known, but from a deed relating to his printing materials, dated 24th February, 1468, he is mentioned as being then dead. He was born about the year 1400, and consequently would be in his sixty-eighth year at the time of his death.
In a work written by Hadrian Junius, a native of Holland, but not published till 1588, twelve years after his decease, a story is inserted ascribing the invention of printing to one Laurence Coster, of Harlem; and giving an account of his types and printing materials having been stolen on Christmas eve, 1442, by one of his servants named ‘John’ – ‘Faust’, as in insinuated – who, flying into Mentz, there set up a press, not only robbing the said Laurence of his goods, but also depriving him of his deserved fame as the inventor of printing.
Though many learned men have, since the publication of Junius’ work, undertaken to support the claims put forth on behalf of Coster, yet each in succession has done little more than prove the insufficiency of his predeccessors’ theories, while he has at the same time been unwittingly accumulating evidence of the fallacy of his own; piling argument upon argument to prove that to be true, which, from an inspection of the work to which he refers, the “Speculum Salvationis,” is immediately seen to be ‘false’ and finally producing a large work, the essence of which is, that the story of Coster’s invention, and his being robbed, as told in the work of Junius, is inconsistent and incredible, but that the writer himself, out of the same materials, could contrive a story more feasible.
While investigation has shown the groundlessness of Coster’s pretensions, it has only confirmed the claims of Gutemburg.