Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468) died poor, estranged, and with relatively no recognition for any work done on the printing press. The infamous “struggling artist” would be a suitable description of our late friend, who started a reformation of sorts. It really isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Johannes Gutenberg was an artist, who began his working life as a goldsmith, probably working very closely with the church and government. He later worked to polish gems, which was no doubt another attempt to just make a living. Some of the only records the world has of the life of Gutenberg are legal documents that show his poor financial situation. Later in life, he continued to accumulate massive debt as business partnerships went awry. However, his greatest debt did not come until after his greatest work—the printing press.
Gutenberg is credited with being the inventor of the movable type printing press, an invention which single-handedly transformed the dissemination of the Word of God. Most likely the first piece of literature he published on his printing press was a German poem, followed by indulgences. The Catholic clergy soon saw the value of his new technology and ordered Bibles to be printed en masse. This new way of producing Bibles significantly decreased the cost of producing a new Bible—down to 3 years’ wages—and greatly increased the speed and accuracy with which Bibles could be produced. Gutenberg printed just 180 copies of the Bible on his printing press, all of the Latin Vulgate. About 48 of them still exist, though not all complete. Only four vellum copies and 12 paper copies are complete. (The Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany, has three of them.) Since that day, the entire Bible has been printed untold numbers of times in over 450 languages. Unfortunately for Gutenberg, as mentioned before, it was after this great innovation that his greatest debt came.
A man by the name of Johann Fust had been the moneylender who helped Gutenberg get his printing press started. However, in 1456, about six years after the printing press had been developed, Fust charged Gutenberg for misusing funds loaned and demanded his money back. The courts ruled in Fust’s favor, giving him ownership of the shops with the press and the Bibles being printed there. Thus, Gutenberg went into massive debt and found himself operating out of a different shop trying to make ends meet. Then Gutenberg was exiled from the city of Mainz after he found himself on the losing side of a conflict between two competing archbishops. It appears that in January 1465, Gutenberg was finally recognized locally for some of his achievements and was given money, food, and wine as a reward. In 1468, Gutenberg died. He was most likely still in debt, and had been given no real credit by Fust for what he had done on the printing press.
In the end, it is clear that although Gutenberg received little credit and financial gain for what he developed, he sparked a revolution in printing literature that has changed our world forever.