The invention of movable type, by Laurence
Coster, a native of Holland, in 1423 marks the beginning of modern
printing. However, Coster himself did not achieve great success with his
invention. His types were made from wood, which would not stand the
pressure of the press.
In the employ of Coster was a young German
by the name of John Gutenberg. After Coster’s death Gutenberg returned to
Germany, to the cathedral city of Strasbourg, where he began setting type
on his own. He found the wooden type so impractical that he resolved to
make types of metal. He began to experiment. Lead was too soft. He
had little knowledge of metals and very little money.
He preferred to keep
the invention to himself, but he could not proceed without assistance.
Finally he enlisted the cooperation of John Faust, a wealthy
goldsmith of Strasbourg, whose knowledge of metals and liberal investments
supplied the needs.
A secret project
In 1448 the experiments in type-making had
advanced to a stage of development where Gutenberg was ready to begin
printing. The first work undertaken was the printing of the famous
forty-two line Latin Bible. Eight years were required to carve the metal
letters and print the first edition. The work was done in Strasbourg,
though the Gutenberg Bibles bear the imprint of Mainz, Germany. The first
edition was completed in 1456.
Great secrecy was maintained while the work
was going on. It was a new undertaking. By many it was believed that
the Bible was not for the common people, and it was a risky undertaking to
publish an unlimited number of copies. Besides, the type that they had
made was an imitation of hand-printed letters, and it was the purpose of
Gutenberg and Foust to sell these Bibles as hand-printed copies at the
regular high prices. That this new art might be kept a secret, and the printers
not be easily found out, is doubtless the reason why the first Bibles bore
the imprint of Mainz instead of Strasbourg, and why the first books were
sold in Paris, far from the place of publication.
A creative sales idea
But when the first Bibles were printed,
these enterprising pioneers in the art were confronted with another
difficulty. How were the books to be sold? There were no book salesmen
upon whom they could rely. During many years of experiment and labor much money had been invested in this work.
They must get their money back. The books might be sold at a
high price if the method of printing could be kept secret.
John Faust, who alone had invested in the
undertaking, resolved to sell the Bibles himself. He
could not trust the work to others. A quantity of these wonderful,
newly printed books was sent to faraway Paris, and there he began
With the keen instinct of the modern
salesperson, he decided to head his list, if possible, with
The first purchaser
Faust called first on none other that
Charles VII, king of France. Having secured an audience, he
showed his beautiful Bible to the king in his royal palace. It
was printed on vellum, and contained six hundred and seven leaves
[pages]. The king was delighted, and believing that he was
purchasing the most magnificent copy of the Scriptures in
existence, he paid eight hundred and twenty-five dollars for it.
This would seem to be a very high price for
a copy of the Scriptures, purchasable now for as little
as twenty cents; but considering the fact that it required
practically a lifetime to print by hand such a copy, the price asked did
not seem so great.
Pleased, doubtless, with the success of his
visit, and that he had the name of the king at the head of
his list, Faust next called at the palace of his archbishop, and
introduced his Bible. The archbishop subscribed at the same price
paid by the king, and Faust went on his way looking for other
The secret revealed
A most interesting incident now took place,
which gave a new turn to Faust’s Bible-selling
experience. This is related by
Charles Coffin in The Story of Liberty,
“The archbishop calls upon the king.
“‘ I have something to show you - the most
magnificent book in the world,’ says the king.
“‘Indeed!’ The archbishop is thinking of
his own book.
“‘Yes; a copy of the Bible. It is a marvel.
The letters are so even that you can not discover a shade of
“‘I have a splendid copy, and if yours is
any more perfect than mine, I should like to see it.’
“‘Here is mine. Just look at it’: and the
king shows his copy.
“The archbishop turns the leaves. ‘This is
remarkable. I don’t see but that it is exactly like
mine.’ The pages are the same, the letters are the same. Can one man
have written both? - Impossible! Yet they are alike. There is
not a particle of difference between them. ‘How long have you
had this?’ the archbishop asks.
“‘I bought it the other day of a man who
came to the palace.’
“‘Singular! I bought mine of a man who came
to my palace.’
“Neither the king nor the archbishop knows
what to think of it. They place the two Bibles side by
side, and find them precisely alike. There are the same number
of pages; each page begins with the same word; there is not a
shade of variation. Wonderful! But the archbishop, in a few
days, is still more
perplexed. He discovers that some of the
rich citizens of Paris have copies of Bibles exactly like the
king’s and his own. More: he discovers that copies are for sale here and
“‘Where did you get them?’
“‘We bought them of a man who came along.’
“‘Who was he?’
“‘We don’t know.’
“‘This is the work of the devil.’
“The archbishop can arrive at no other
conclusion. The Bible is a dangerous book. None but the
priests should be permitted to read it. But here is the evil
one selling it everywhere; or, if not himself in person,
some man has sold
himself to Satan for that purpose. He soon
discovers that it is Dr. John Faust, of Strasbourg.
“‘You have sold yourself to the evil one,
and must be burned to death.’
“Till this moment the great invention has
been a secret; but Dr. Faust must divulge it, or be
burned. He shows the archbishop how the Bibles are printed; and
John Gutenberg has printed so many of them that the price has
been reduced one half. The archbishop, the king, and
everybody else are astonished. So Faust saves his life; but the idea of
selling himself to the devil
has gone into story and song.”
When Faust was arrested on the charge of
being in league with the devil in making books, his room
was searched, and many copies of the Bible were found, “highly
embellished with red ink - the reddest of ink, at that, which was
supposed to be his own blood. The magistrate, on this ground,
declared Dr. Faust to be in league with the devil, hence the tradition
of the devil and Dr. Faust, or the printer’s devil.”
The bible movement is launched
This simple story of the invention of
printing covers the first important steps in the development of
modern printing, and in the world-wide distribution of
The change brought about by the
introduction of printing and the circulation of the Scriptures meant
the breaking of the power of the church over the minds and
consciences of men. The churchman were alarmed. Their traffic was
slipping from their grasp.
The popular demand for printed matter was
chiefly for the Scriptures and for other religious
writings. Considering the crude facilities of those early times, it is
simply marvelous how rapidly the work of publishing the Scriptures
progressed. The demand of the people was imperative. Printers sprang
Author Samuel Smiles writes: “It has been
calculated (by Daunou, Petit, Rudel, Taillandier, and
others) that by the end of the fifteenth century four millions of
volumes had been printed, the greater part in folio; and that between
1500 and 1536 eighteen more millions of volumes had been
printed. After that it is impossible to number them. In 1533 there
had already been eighteen editions of the German Bible
printed at Wittenberg, thirteen at Augsburg, thirteen at
Strasbourg, twelve at Basel, and so on. Schoeffer, in his Influence of
Luther on Education, says
that Luther’s Catechism
soon ran to one hundred thousand copies. Printing was at the same time
taking strides in France, England,
and the Low Countries.” (Samuel Smiles, The Huguenots,
Well may the citizens of Strasbourg point
with pride to the little island which is believed to be the
site of the Gutenberg shop, and say, “That is the spot from which
the light shown forth upon all the world.”
“The Devil and Dr. Faust” is from the
book The Printing Press and
the Gospel, Edwin R. Palmer [Review and
Herald Publishing Assoc., Second Edition, 1947] pp. 14-24.
Used by permission. Edited for brevity and continuity.