I’m fortunate this weekend to have a visit from my dad, which made being away from “home” for both Thanksgiving and my birthday this week less difficult. James and I showed Dad around town and, among other things, had been waiting for this opportunity to check out the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Johannes Gutenberg, credited with making mass print media possible with movable type, lived and worked in Mainz once upon a time. We got an English audio tour of the museum on a mini-iPod-like device with headphones. If you’re into history and/or bookmaking (fortunately, we all were) the museum offers a lot interesting information and artifacts about handwritten books, Gutenberg and his printing press, and early book printing and binding. Unfortunately, our only photos-allowed opportunity was during the printing demonstration so pictures are limited for this post.
The exhibits were filled with wooden printing and book binding machines and tools, natural materials used to make paper and ink, and beautifully decorated handwritten and early printed books. Where once a bible could be written by hand in two to three years, over a hundred bibles could be printed in a year. After the invention of the press, bookmaking also expanded beyond religious texts to include writing about political and scientific ideas that could reach the masses.
From the type setting demonstration we watched, using the printing press still looked like difficult work. The letters were set in rows, accounting for even spacing that we can now do with a layout or text justify setting on a computer. They were then painted with an ink roller and the whole heavy machine was pressed and cranked to apply pressure from ink to paper.
In addition to information about printing in Europe, there were sections of the museum devoted to writing development in Egypt, printing techniques developed in eastern Asia, and the history of book production culture in the Islamic world. Text and pictures were actually printed in China, Korea, and Japan long before Gutenberg’s independently developed inventions in Europe. Some of the character molds were single-use, however, and an extremely large number of characters were needed for these writing systems. In Islamic countries the idea of mass printing was initially met with disapproval, particularly by calligraphers who held a high level of status. Each of these exhibits incredibly contained papers with text printed hundreds and, in one case, over a thousand years ago.