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Since getting involved in the book business a few years ago I've given a lot of thought to the clever German inventor Johannes Gutenberg who helped make our modern book business possible. Can you imagine if each copy of all our favorite books was still being printed by hand? By monks using fancy quill pens to draw each letter carefully on 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 three months wages, which would have put a dent in Amazon's sales, don't you think? On the other hand, from the author's perspective, there were so few books being made you could get on the bestseller list with the total sales of maybe three or four.
Those who know such things say Gutenberg developed the first method of using movable type and the printing press, which he fashioned from a wine press. Considering how many writers over the years have shown a fondness for drink it's a little ironic that the first European printing press would have that grape connection.
Like so many other neat things - pasta and fireworks, just to name two — block printing had been known in China for many centuries before Gutenberg's day. In fact, a printed book dating from about 868 has been discovered there with the Border's receipt still in it.
Some historians say Gutenberg's main contribution was the invention of movable type, but here again the Chinese beat him to the punch. Movable type was invented in China around the 11th century by a man named Pi Sheng. His original type was made of earthenware.
So, if Johann didn't invent movable type and the printing press, what DID he do? Well, he undoubtedly ate a lot of wienerschnitzel and sauerkraut and also made a lot of important improvements to the things used in printing, like metals and ink. For example he developed a metal alloy used for making type, he found a way to make molds for casting blocks of type precisely and accurately and he came up with an oil-based printing ink that was better than any before it.
Once he'd done all these things he retrofitted the old wine press so it was suitable for printing books faster and cheaper than anyone before him. And for that people like me are very grateful.
Like others in the book business who followed him Gutenberg never managed to make a lot of money. I like to think that I am following in that tradition.
I raise a glass of grape juice to the great inventor - Johannes Gutenberg - and his wine-stained printing press.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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