Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Gutenberg Museum

By Grace Weppler, Contributing Writer

 

One of my family excursions this summer included visiting the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. Mainz, a city located along the River Rheine, was once a center of trade and a place of storage for goods transported along the River Rheine. I learned about Gutenberg’s life, his inventions, and the technology of printing.

 

Gutenberg (or Johannes Gensfleisch, his real name) was a skilled artisan and an influential businessman. He invented the technique of printing with a movable type cast in metal and printing on the printing press. We know little about his life and how he invented letterpress printing because many documents went missing or were destroyed. However, we do know that Gutenberg was born in Mainz about 600 years ago, and he died in 1468.

Before Gutenberg’s new printing process, books were written by hand. As a result, books were extremely hard to come by. You could not just go and buy a book from a bookshop. There were no bookshops back then. Either you wrote it yourself or you had it written for you. Some books were decorated with pictures. A scribe could write about 200 words an hour. Sometimes it took a year or more to write a single book. Often mistakes were also made. Books were not easy to carry around because they were big and heavy. Girdle books were practical because you could just fasten it on your belt. In German schools, you had to learn most of the material by heart since pupils did not have their own books. Imagine that! For writing, they used wax tablets and a stylus to etch words onto the wax. With the smooth backside, you could erase the writing.

Another type of printing at Gutenberg’s time was printing with blocks of wood. This process began once paper was first manufactured in Germany. The first paper mill in Germany opened in 1290. Printing with wood blocks was faster than writing by hand, but still needed a lot of word as all the letters had to be carved into the wood for each new page. This process was not as impressive as Gutenberg’s inventions. The woodcut technique had been used in Asia since the end of the 8th century AD.

Gutenberg never invented the art of printing. What he invented was a technique of printing movable type cast in metal on the printing press. With the manual caster and the printing press, he revolutionized the printing process. Printing books became cheaper and faster than ever before. To make the individual type, first a basic prototype was fashioned for each letter of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks. It was called a patrix. When it was punched inside softer metal, a matrix was formed which was the mold for casting letters. Liquid metal was then poured into the manual caster loaded with a matrix. The printing press was made of massive wooden frames with a spindle, which moved down to press on the plate by turning a wooden bar. Two adults operated the spindle, and it was physically hard work. My dad was allowed to turn the wooden bar at the museum and he really struggled!

 

Most people know Gutenberg because of the Bibles he printed, namely the Gutenberg Bible. One sort of these Bibles is the Shuck burgh bible. It has two volumes. The city of Mainz purchased the entire work in 1978 in New York for 1.85 million Euros. The other Bible (one volume of which is missing) is the Solms-Laubach Bible. No wonder, they were displayed in the high security vault room at the museum. It was thrilling for me to see them up close. They were written in Latin, so I could not understand a thing. It was also interesting that there were no page numbers.

A day at Gutenberg Museum was very meaningful for me because I love books. I feel fortunate to live after the time of Gutenberg, and I can enjoy reading books without any limitations. Thanks to Gutenberg, we do not have to wear girdle books or write them ourselves. We do not have to memorize everything we learned at school. He made life and education better for us all.