The revenge of Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg

Mainz, Germany - 3 May 1450

Johann Fust studied the curious man standing before him. He waved his arms wildly as he spoke with excitement about the secrets of his Hof zum Humbrecht workshop near the town square. The man’s full beard reached halfway down his chest, adding to his wizard-like demeanor.

“Herr Gutenberg, I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Fust began, “but I need to know more about this idea of yours before I could consider giving you a loan.”

“Of course,” Johannes Gutenberg replied. “I call it the 'marriage of enterprise and art'.”

He handed Fust a stack of vellum pamphlets. “Maybe this will help you understand the fruit of their union.”

Fust read the dark lettering on the top sheaf:

Die Pluemen der Tugent

aus der druckerpresse von

Johannes Gutenberg

Fust turned it over and read what appeared to be a poem. The lettering was neat and precise. Whoever inscribed it paid careful attention to spacing and margins. But what was more interesting was the number of identical copies. Fust scratched his head.

“There are seventy-five,” Gutenberg said with a grin. “And another three hundred are being finished in my workshop as we speak.”

Fust raised his hand. “A druckerpresse? Is that like a schraubenpresse for making wine?”

“Very close, but much better for printing.”

“Printing?” Fust repeated, taking the stack of sheaf's and placing them on his desk. He moved behind it and sat on his wooden chair. “Johannes,” he started, “tell me the truth. Who lettered these? And how did you pay? This has to be worth at least thirty guilders. No?”

“Nichts!” Gutenberg replied.

“You paid the scribes nothing?”

“That is my secret. My Aventur und Kunst,” Gutenberg replied. “These pamphlets were printed today on my druckerpresse.”

Sketch of Gutenberg's drukerpresse

A machine? Fust thought. A wine-press that could produce in a morning what would take a month to do at the monastery? Could such a device print a whole book, one that a Bishop or a Prince might purchase? “Please, sit and explain to me," Fust said. "Why do you need a loan if you have already built such a machine?”

Gutenberg sat down on the bench at the side of the Fust’s desk. “I need better tools, and a way to improve the whole process, especially the casting of letters.”

Fust was intrigued, if not confused. “If I provide the funds, will you share your secret? And how much capital do you need?”

Gutenberg sat silent for a moment, looking off with a blank stare. Fust was not sure about this old man sitting in his office, but he had an inkling there was something special here.

“Eight hundred,” Gutenberg finally replied. “If you could loan me 800 guilders, I can buy tools that will make the casting of letters and symbols faster and more consistent. I am close to perfecting the molding process.”

“Eight hundred guilders?” Fust exclaimed? “Are you mad? A man of your years, taking out such a loan?”

“I am fifty-two, Herr Fust,” Gutenberg replied. “And I am confident that I will be able to print a whole book soon.”

“If I provide the funds, will you share your secrets?"

Johann Fust let the words sink in. “A book? You mean like the Bible?”

Gutenberg smiled. “Yes, that would be a very special to to print.”

Fust recalled that the contract he had just negotiated with the Archbishop-elector of Mainz for new bibles at a cost of 500 guilders each. The order for 10 bibles would take two years to complete by monks in the Bavarian monastery at a total cost to the church of 5,000 guilders.

“If you get these new tools, how long would it take to create a book, say like the Bible?” Fust asked casually.

“Good question,” Gutenberg replied. “Let’s see….” he started to count with this fingers, looking around the chamber. “Once we have all the type cast, set into galleys and locked into chases, and we have say, five men working on it, we should be able to do about 200 copies - maybe in two weeks, a month at most.”

Fust was astounded. “Oh, I see,” he replied as if the miracle being described was no more remarkable than the flask of wine sitting on his desk. “I think perhaps I could provide you with a loan, but there are two conditions.”

“Yes?” Gutenberg asked. “What conditions?”

“Interest on the loan at six per cent per annum,” Fust started. “payable in full with the interest twenty-four months from today.”

“That is reasonable, Herr Fust.”

“And also one other condition,” Fust added, turning his attention to the open ledger on his desk. “You must pledge security.”


“Against the value of the loan - 800 guilders,” Fust replied. “I want your printing equipment, as a guarantee of repayment.”

At this Johannes Gutenberg stood up from the bench. He hesitated a moment before speaking. “I fear that is not something I can agree to. I am not a fool.”

“That you are not, Johannes,” Fust replied, without looking up from his ledger. “But you will not find better terms in Mainz or anywhere in Franconia.”

“You may be correct, but I must try.”

With that Johannes Gutenberg turned and walked out of the chamber, leaving Fust to wonder if he had just lost the deal of his life.

Fust prevails

Johann Fust

Johannes Fust had no reason to worry that day. It wasn’t long before Johannes Gutenberg agreed to Fust's terms. Gutenberg was a much better at invention than business.

Fust, a wealthy moneylender, made the deal that would indeed eventually change his life. Gutenberg was unable to pay back the 800 guilders and by December of 1452 went back for another 800 guilders and agreed to make Fust a partner in his new printing business.

Gutenberg also agreed to hire Petrus Schöffer as an apprentice and together they perfected the processes that Gutenberg had spent much of his life researching and developing. Like a 15th century Steve Jobs, Johannes Gutenberg was able to combine and improve on the existing technology of the day to build something entirely new. His system simplified the overwhelming complexity of printing, with a system that could turn out books quickly and cheaply.

Gutenberg focused most of his attention on a way to cast and assemble moveable type. His father was involved in goldsmithing, and young Gutenberg grew up learning about metals, alloys and casting.

He grew interested in printing, possibly through stories of work being done in the Netherlands with wooden letters and ink. When he tried it, he realized the limitations of carving the letters from wood, the poor quality of inks currently available and the laborious nature of hand printing, since no printing press existed.

Gutenberg came up with his ‘secret’ - using wooden letters at the end of a small stick to make an impression in soft metal or sand, then filling the mold with a molten alloy to form reusable type that could be assembled into lines and then pages. He also perfected an oil-based ink mixture that would dry quickly and be of the right viscosity. Finally, he borrowed the techniques of wine makers on the Rhine for pressing grapes, building a machine that pressed sheets of vellum onto an inked page of metal type.

The two videos below show the processes Gutenberg developed in action.

Fust and Schöffer take over

Gutenberg poured his heart and soul into perfecting the process, working closely with his young apprentice Petrus Schöffer. Together they produced a masterpiece, the ‘Forty-two line Bible” early in 1454, requiring Gutenberg to borrow even more money to complete the project. It was truly a work of art. A copy of the Bible from that first run of 180 copies is worth $30 million USD today.

By 1455 Fust had received no repayment of his loans, and decided to sue Gutenberg. On November 6, 1455 in the refectory of the Barefooted Friars of Mainz, Fust won his case against Gutenberg for 2026 guilders - the principal and interest owed to him. He was awarded Gutenberg’s printing business, equipment and half of all printed copies of the Bible.

Copy of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible (National Geographic Society)

Petrus Schöffer had married Fust’s only daughter Christina earlier that year, and now the two men took over from Gutenberg whom they had effectively bankrupt and put out of business.

Although Fust and Schöffer became very successful printers, it was Gutenberg who was recognized after his death at 71 for achievements in publishing. In 1502 he was hailed as the inventor of typography and interest in him began to grow steadily.

History records the work of Gutenberg as one the most important technological innovations of the millennium. Some call him the father of the information revolution which profoundly changed the course of human history.

As for Johann Fust, he is remembered only as a footnote.

It took time, but eventually history gave Gutenberg his ultimate revenge.