*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 3rd of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

We’ll start with a mental exercise: what is the greatest invention of all time?

First- there are those which are so important but so old that it’s difficult to tie to one person or people to rank. Consider the wheel, paper, gunpowder, nails, etc.

Secondly, in terms of what can “do the most,” I think it’s hard not to crown the internet as the most wide-reaching… but it is the culmination of so many other inventions that it’s almost like cheating. BUT, relative to where we stand?

Engines, cars, planes, etc., are certainly a big deal. Yesterday, for Candlemas, we reflected on the electric light.

But I might suggest it is that which pertains to information and communication most directly which have the most significant impact. You might see where we are headed… it was on this, the 3rd of February in 1468 Johann Gutenberg- inventor of a new printing press died.

It is not novel to suggest that Gutenberg and his invention were seminal. An aggregation of several “who is the most important person in history” polls consistently rank Gutenberg in the top 10. For the 500th anniversary of his birth (we don’t know when he was born, but his hometown picked a nice round number and made it in 1400), Mark Twain wrote:

“What the world is to-day, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage… for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.”

While much of the life history of Gutenberg has been lost- we can piece together a pretty fascinating story from a few sources.

His father was an aristocrat- possibly of Noble stock who was employed as a goldsmith, perhaps for the Bishop of Mainz. Around 1411 local craftsmen ran him and others out of town in what looks like a somewhat typical guild dispute.

We find Johann at School (or someone who is very likely Johann) in Erfurt studying metallurgy and smithing. He seems to have been a man looking for a buck- we find him around 1439 taking out a loan to create little mirrors that could be sold to pilgrims coming to Aachen for a festival celebrating Charlemagne. When natural disasters postponed the festival, Johann was on the hook for the loan he couldn’t pay back.

In 1440 he published a book- hand-copied of course- called “enterprise and art”- it is here that he put forward his idea for a printing machine. By 1448 he had moved back home, taken out another loan, and created the first moveable type printing press of its kind.

Important: it was the combination of things that made his invention. Using individual blocks for letters had been done in China for centuries- they were wooden, however. Having trained in metallurgy, Gutenberg devised a metal alloy that could be molded, cooled quickly, and durable.

The ink was not uncommon either, but Gutenberg used an oil-based ink that adhered to the metal alloy and could transfer cleanly to paper. And presses had been used, but more like big clumsy stamps. Gutenberg used a variation on a famous wine press that used a screw-type press.

The Bible, which he is known for the 42 line Bible (each page could hold 42 lines of print), came soon, but his first project was undertaken with a lender, Johann Fust. It was a kind of get-rich-quick project- he printed indulgences for the church. But when they didn’t sell as he hoped, Fust called on his loan with interest. Gutenberg had to sell his press to Fust, who would also receive the rights to the 200 printed Bibles.

[The last time a complete Gutenberg Bible was sold was in 1978 for over 2 million dollars. A partial bible sold in 1987 for 5 million, and today when single pages from the Bible are auctioned, they fetch around 50,000 apiece.]

The rest of Gutenberg’s life is disputed- he was involved with a smaller printing press but was also going blind. It was said that he died penniless, while it seems more likely he was given an honorary position back home that gave him a stipend of cash, grain, and wine.

Gutenberg’s press is the first domino in the information and communication revolution that brought the Bible, the Reformations, the Enlightenment, and the modern world to us.

[Make sure you check out this weekend’s CHA Weekend Edition, where we will expand on this a little as we talk about the Enlightenment and Christianity]

Today, we remember the man whose name is synonymous with the printed Bible: Johann Gutenberg, who died in 1468.

The Last Word for today comes from John 1 (like yesterday, but the first verses this time):

In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Gutenbergs include Johann, German seismologist Beno, and the star of 3 Men and a baby: Steve Gutenberg. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man trying not to remember that today is the 20th anniversary of Brady and the Pats beating the Rams in the Super Bowl. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.