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Has History Been Too Generous to Gutenberg?
By DINITIA SMITH
Johann Gutenberg, the 15th-century German craftsman, has long been believed to be the father of modern typography. But the secretive inventor may have to share some of the paternity now. A physicist and a scholar of rare books at Princeton University who jointly used new technology to examine some of Gutenberg's texts say he may not have created the seminal process after all, a finding could rewrite the history of printing.
The two scholars contend that the metal mold method of printing attributed to Gutenberg was probably invented by someone else about 20 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible. The method, which involves punching a letter into a copper matrix that is filled with lead alloy to create hundreds of identical letters, was the principal way of printing until after World War II.
"They have figured out that the whole history of early printing is wrong," said Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton and an expert on the history of the book. "There wasn't one, heroic discovery."
Rather, Mr. Grafton said, the invention of modern printing was a more gradual process involving more than one person.
The finding, Mr. Grafton said, means that Gutenberg was not the inventor of movable type in the way it is commonly understood: as bits of identical type that are created from metal molds. The new research, however, does not dislodge Gutenberg from his historic position as the inventor of the printing press and the first person to mass-produce Bibles and other materials.
The announcement is causing the kind of excitement among rare-book collectors and scholars that the Super Bowl is generating among sports fans. Some 250 such scholars and collectors are gathered in New York this week for a series of events including the annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America.
The discovery was announced on Monday by Paul Needham, the librarian of the Scheide Library, a private library housed at Princeton, and Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a 25-year-old graduate of Princeton with a degree in physics, before a standing-room-only audience at New York's Grolier Club, a club for book collectors founded in 1884.
The two used computer enhancement to magnify the typeface of the Calixtus Bull, a letter from the Vatican printed by Gutenberg that sought to raise money to fight the Turks, and of two Bibles printed in Gutenberg types that are at the Scheide Library. Mr. Agüera y Arcas then created mathematical models to compare the letters.
The scholars said they discovered that individual letters differed in shape from one another in such a way that they could not have come from the same metal mold. For example, the A's on any given page on Gutenberg's papal bull are not always exactly the same shape.
Mr. Needham and Mr. Agüera y Arcas say they believe that Gutenberg employed a cruder printing method, sand casting, used at the time for making metal objects. The two scholars suspect Gutenberg made his molds in sand, then poured lead alloy into them to create letters. Because sand molds could not be reused, Gutenberg would have had to make his molds over and over again, and each letter would thus have been slightly different.
Mr. Grafton explained that "the letters were movable, in the sense that they were individual and were fitted into forms, but not in the normally used sense of being hard, identical or virtually identical objects created uniformly and used uniformly." Mr. Agüera y Arcas was a student of Mr. Grafton's in a graduate seminar in the history of the book. It was Mr. Grafton who brought him together with Mr. Needham.
Gutenberg had always been thought to print using whole letters. But the two scholars were also startled to discover that Gutenberg probably used a more complex method of creating shapes in the sand with tools and joining the different shapes together to make letters.
"We don't know why he used this method," said Mr. Needham, 57, who has been curator of printed books and bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library and director of books and manuscripts at Sotheby's. "It could have been used to make it look more like script."
Mr. Needham and Mr. Agüera y Arcas say they plan to publish their findings in a scholarly journal and in a monograph. Once experts have a chance to study their results, there are bound to be dissenters. Still, G. Thomas Tanselle, a leading bibliographical scholar who was in the audience at the Grolier, called the announcement "a landmark in the study of early typography."
Peter E. Hanff, the deputy director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley who was also present at the Grolier, said: "It's opening a window on something we thought we understood. It reveals to us that the invention of printing was far more complex than we thought."
He added, "I think it is an astonishing discovery so many years after the fact."
Until now, almost every historical account of Gutenberg credits him with inventing the metal mold method for printing. Gutenberg, who was born in Mainz, Germany, around 1400, began his career as a metal worker. Because of political turmoil in Mainz, he moved to Strasbourg, then a German city. He began making mirrors that pilgrims could hold above their heads to get a better view of sacred relics in a crowd and perhaps, it was thought, catch some of the relic's magic. Gutenberg may have used sand casting to create molds for his mirrors, Mr. Needham said.
At the time, there was a demand among pilgrims for religious trinkets and papal indulgences, which could lead to a reduction of a sinner's time in Purgatory). But multiple copies of documents had to be written out laboriously by hand. Mr. Needham and Mr. Agüera y Arcas say that Gutenberg, who never wrote down his printing methods, probably came up with the idea of using sand casting from his mirror making.
The Koreans had been using sand casting to make metal letters and had already been mass-producing books for at least 30 years, but the scholars found no direct evidence that Gutenberg had contact with them. It has also long been known that the Chinese were making movable type out of clay and mass-producing books in the 11th century A.D., although that process was unknown in Europe.
To print his books, Gutenberg built a press modeled on the type used in winemaking, bookbinding and papermaking. He also developed an oil-based ink that is the prototype of modern printer's ink. Around 1450 he began printing multiple copies of papal indulgences, a Latin grammar and a prophetic poem about the fate of the Holy Roman Empire.
Gutenberg obtained additional financing to perfect his printing system and to produce a Latin Bible. The Bible, which is known as the Gutenberg Bible, was published around 1455, in an edition of about 180 copies. It is the oldest surviving printed book. One copy is in the Scheide Library, together with another Bible believed to have been made by Albrecht Pfister using type supplied by Gutenberg. The library is owned by William Scheide, a philanthropist from a family that made a fortune in the oil business. Mr. Scheide, the third generation of his family to own the library, helped support the Gutenberg research, as did Princeton University.
How the modern punch matrix method came into being remains unknown, Mr. Needham said. He noted that Italian documents from the 1470's refer explicitly to printing that uses metal molds instead of sand.
"When did it begin and how did it spread?" Mr. Needham asked at the Grolier Club. "We don't have any answer."
For more information about Gutenberg, and a digital version of a Gutenberg Bible, visit the Gutenberg Bible Exhibit at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.
Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Other Books by Doug Anderson
A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories
Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book
Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection
Devotions for the Advent – 2009
The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition
Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
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