Since getting involved in the book business a few years ago – actually it was August 16, 2000 with the publication of The Maine Dictionary – I have occasionally thought of the clever German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, who helped make our modern book business possible.
Imagine if all books were still being made by monks using fancy quill pens to - slowly and carefully – draw each-and-every letter onto thick sheets of parchment.
The making of books was so slow back before Gutenberg’s day in the 1400s that the average book could cost you half a year’s salary, which would have put a major dent in Amazon’s sales if they had been around back then. On the other hand you could get on the bestseller list by selling three or four books.
Those who know such things say Gutenberg developed the first method of using moveable type and the printing press. Considering how many authors, over the years, have shown a fondness for grape products over the centuries, it’s appropriate that the first European printing press would have a “grape” connection.
Like so many other neat things – like pasta and fireworks – block printing had been known in China for many centuries before Gutenberg’s day. In fact, a printed book dating from 868 AD has been discovered there with the Barnes and Noble receipt still in it.
Some historians claim that Gutenberg’s main contribution to printing was the invention of moveable type, but here again the Chinese did it first. Moveable type was invented in China in the 11th century by a man named Pi Sheng. But his type was made of earthen ware and didn’t work too well. So, if Johann didn’t invent moveable type or the printing press, What did he do?
Well, we can assume he ate lots of weinerschnitzel and sauerkraut but he also made important improvements to the things used in printing., like metals and ink. For example he developed a metal alloy used in making type. He also found a way to make molds for casting blocks of type that were more precise and accurate. Gutenberg also developed an oil-based printing ink that was much better than any before it.
Once he had done all those things, he retrofitted an old wine press so it was suitable for printing books quicker and cheaper than anyone before him. And for that, people like me are grateful.
Like many others in the book business who followed him, Gutenberg made a respectable living in the book business but not a fortune. I like to think that I am following in that fine tradition.
I raise my glass of grape juice to the great inventor – Johannes Gutenberg – and his grape-stained printing.