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First Impressions

Johann Gutenberg 1399 - 1468

"...first of all men, devised the art of printing, whereby books are made, not by reed, as did the ancients, nor with a quill pen, as do we, but with metal letters, and that swiftly, neatly, beautifully. Surely this man is worthy to be loaded with divine honours by all the muses, all the arts, all the tongues of those who delight in books, and is all the more to be preferred to gods and goddesses in that he put the means of choice within reach of letters themselves and of mortals devoted to culture..." Guillaume Fichet, 1470.

Little is known and much has been speculated about the life of Johann Gutenberg. What we do know comes from a few contemporary court documents, mainly describing a lifetime of complicated and disputed financial transactions. He is believed to have been born in Mainz on the River Rhine around 1399, and he certainly died there in 1468. Gutenberg seems to have had a number of businesses and for some time he worked in Strasbourg, when he was in exile from Mainz. Court records show that he lost money making polished metal mirrors and took out loans to pay assistants working for him. In the late 1430s he entered into legal partnership with other traders from Strasbourg and agreed to teach them an undisclosed process, on condition that they kept it secret. We will never know if printing was this secret process, as the court records tantalisingly do not reveal any details.

In 1444 Strasbourg was at war and Gutenberg moved on, reappearing in Mainz in 1448. In 1450 and 1453 he took out loans to finance his printing business from Johann Fust, a businessman who had worked as a goldsmith. Fust must have recognised the potential of this new technology as the contract stipulates that if Gutenberg defaulted he would forfeit ownership of the printing equipment.

A court ruling of 1457 records that Gutenberg did default on the loan and he had to surrender the printing equipment he had been working on for so many years. Little is known of Gutenberg after this date but he died a poor man in February 1468, and it was only after his death that his accomplishments were recognized.

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