The conventional wisdom is that the world’s greatest invention was the printing press. (In a previous article, I nominated refrigeration as the greatest invention ever.) The credit for inventing the printing press goes to Johannes Gutenberg, but did the the great Gutenberg really invent the world’s most revolutionary invention or is he a sham and a myth and thief like Thomas Edison? In fact, another serious other candidate has been forwarded as the inventor of the printing press, most notably a Dutch man named Laurens Janszoom Coster. The Dutch still offer him credit for the invention of printed books on the basis that Laurens Janszoom Coster (God, how I love that name) was really the first person to print a book from his typeface machine before the more famous Gutenberg. The legend goes that Coster’s servant did an Edison on his master and gave them to Gutenberg. As Paul Harvey might say, the rest of the story has it that it was actually either the servant or Gutenberg himself who printed with Coster’s types in 1442. There is another version of this story that has Gutenberg not using Coster’s types until 1450.
That is the story that the backers of Coster push. There may be some problems, however. For one thing, why would there be two different dates involved? There is a pretty big difference between 1442 and 1450 and it is well known that Gutenberg printed his first Biblical missal in 1450. If Coster had the technology and know-how to invent the printing type in the first place, sure even if the servant did steal it he would be able to reproduce it, right? And if that is the case, then why is there nothing to prove that he printed anything before 1450? Gutenberg’s history of inventing the printing press begins in 1438 when he entered into a partnership with several other men. When one of the partners died, Gutenberg borrowed money from Johann Fust and others. Despite printing that first missal that was good enough for Constance diocese to use, Gutenberg was not satisifed with his type. If he wasn’t satisified with his type by 1450, then it does raise some questions that he could have gotten then in 1442. After eight years one would think Gutenberg could have perfected the type enough to actually begin printing the entire Bible. Yet, as we know for sure, the very first Gutenberg Bible was not completed until 1456. That’s fourteen years after Gutenberg supposedly got the stolen Coster types if you believe the first story. Obviously, creating an entirely new media takes time, but if Gutenberg was forced to steal from Coster and it took him fourteen years to perfect it to his liking to print a Bible, why couldn’t Coster, the man who allegedly invented the type machine in the first place?
When all is said and done, it appears that Johannes Gutenberg, unlike Thomas Edison, really does deserve credit for his invention.