Scholars press for printing clues

Peter Spencer

Researchers re-examine Gutenberg's role in bookmaking history


Blaise Agüera y Arcas (left) and Paul Needham with the Scheide Library's 1455 Gutenberg Bible.

In a discovery that could prompt a major reassessment in the history of books and bookmaking, two Princeton University researchers have concluded that 15th century German printer Johannes Gutenberg did not, as has been long believed, invent conventional moveable type.

Using sophisticated digital imaging and computer analysis, Paul Needham, librarian of the Scheide Library, a private collection housed in Princeton's Firestone Library, and Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a 1998 physics graduate, discovered discrepancies between individual letters that they could only explain by concluding Gutenberg used an alternative technology.

They announced their findings last month at New York City's Grolier Club, an organization of book collectors founded in 1884.

"The conventional idea of what Gutenberg invented," Needham says, "was what we would call a punch matrix system, where you engrave the steel punch with a character on its end, then use the punch to strike an impression in a matrix -- a block of copper. You pour the type metal, a lead alloy, into it. (The resulting letters) all look alike because they've all come from the same mold, the same matrix, and ultimately from the same punch. It really is mass production as we think of it today."

The researchers studied the typeface in the Calixtus Bull, a letter from the Vatican printed by Gutenberg in 1456 that is now in the Scheide Library.



But in the Scheide Library's 1455 Gutenberg Bible, in a Papal letter printed by Gutenberg at about the same time and in other pre-1465 printing, Needham and Agüera y Arcas found variations from letter to letter inconsistent with that kind of mass production.

"Blaise's system superimposes every letter with each other," Needham continues. "Looking at (individual pages) carefully, using high-detail digital photography and very clever mathematical software analysis, what we found is that in this earliest printing no two letters are absolutely identical in the way they would have to be if they were all cast from the same matrix."

New conclusion

The two men concluded that Gutenberg may have used an earlier technology that involves casting letters in molds of sand -- molds that could not be reused because one had to break them apart to get the letters out.

"It's not like beach sand," Needham says. "It's very, very fine so it will hold an impression. Imagine powdered sugar vs. granular sugar."

Agüera y Arcas is emphatic that the letters his software isolated could not have been produced the modern way. "For instance, we saw hundreds of unique I's," he states, "unique in ways that are not suggestive of damage. Damage can't change the angles of parts of the letters. (And when) we used transmissive lighting, where we shone light through the page to look more closely at the ink inside each letter, there seems to be an internal structure in the ink impressions which shouldn't be there."

The two did not set out to de-mythologize Gutenberg, merely to test the new software on the Scheide Library's oldest books. Then, says Needham, "these variations and complications came up and they completely rolled over what we thought we were doing."

Nor does Needham accuse Gutenberg of the Renaissance equivalent of resume-padding. "Gutenberg is a silent historical figure," Needham says. "We know a little about him in a documentary sense -- his name in documents -- but we don't know much. When he is mentioned in documents they don't tell us anything about how he printed.

"The Gutenberg Bible is a magnificent piece of printing," he continues. "Nobody is going to say this was made by a crude technology. On the page it looks better than books today. But this (conclusion) is where the evidence drags us. We should only believe what the evidence tells us and be prepared to throw away our preconceptions."

The scholars now believe that the punch matrix system probably was invented by another craftsman or craftsmen a few years after Gutenberg's death in 1468. Needham says, "By the later 1470s this new method was in use, but we can't put our finger on the first book."

New possibilities

Both men are happiest not about debunking a cultural icon but at the new technology's possibilities for revealing new facets of the history of early printing. "I'm trying to approach (these books) more in the way of an archeologist," says Agüera y Arcas. "We applied rigorous techniques that are common in applied mathematics to a field where they haven't been applied before and, as soon as we did that, we found something historic."

Their presentation to the Grolier Club drew a standing-room-only crowd and was covered by a reporter from The New York Times. Since then, the two researchers have received many inquiries about their work.

"What I'm hoping is that because this result has generated such excitement I'm not going to be the last to use these methods," Agüera y Arcas says. "There's quite a lot of room in this field."

The two emphasized that the work could not have been done without the support and enthusiasm of William Scheide, Princeton Class of 1936. The research was based on material from his collection, which is generally considered the finest private library in the United States.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]