Meet the brilliant businessman behind the first printed book

Editor’s note: The following was excerpted from the historical novel “Gutenberg’s Apprentice.”

This excerpt describes the founding of the world’s first tech startup — the little-known collaboration that produced the first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible.

Like most innovators, Johann Gutenberg worked with a team that included his venture capitalist Johann Fust (left), and the young designer Peter Schoeffer (right).

GutenbergCourtesy of Gutenberg-Museum MainzAn oil painting of Fust, Gutenberg & Schoeffer.

The picture Peter carries in his head is that of Moses, dark hair streaming as he parts the waters, urging on the tribes.

Gutenberg resembled him remarkably that hopeful spring.

The master stood apart, his arms outstretched, scooping toward them every kind of good this monumental Bible would require.

Peter had to laugh at the way he windmilled his long arms, directing the whole stream into the chute that fed the workshop. “You look just like an abbot at his busy hive.”

“You could do worse than watch Cistercians.” Gutenberg pulled at his beard and smiled.

There was no question of remaining in the Hof zum Gutenberg. They grasped the magnitude this time. Conservatively reckoning, the Bible ran a thousand pages, if not more — five times as long as their aborted missal, forty times the size of the Donatus. That Fust and Gutenberg even entertained the thought revealed how much their backs were to the wall.

They were inspired, enraptured certainly — convinced of their invincibility, thought Peter afterward. This was pure Gutenberg, of course. But on the other hand they didn’t have much choice. The Bible was the only book they could hope to sell in quantity that did not need approval from the church, so long as they adhered to the accepted version.

Yet from the start it was a risk in every way — not least the certainty that Dietrich would look askance at laymen operating outside his control. If any of the clergy were to learn of it, they had no doubt Dietrich would swoop in and shut them down.

Their crew then numbered only four — Peter, Hans, Keffer, and Ruppel — and yet the premises the partners looked at were all cavernous and freezing: a granary, more stables, sculleries, the ground floor of a house in town. They settled on the last, a massive dwelling girded by a thick high wall a street away along the Cobblers’ Lane. The press would have to stay behind: it was impossible, the master said, to take it all apart and lug it piece by piece along the street. There was no darkness deep enough to trust, no way to stop prying ears and eyes.

“Once burned, twice shy.” He winked at Hans. “The last time I was fool enough to let my tools out of my sight, we came much closer than a Christian should to robbing graves.” Peter glanced up, amazed. What darkness did he hide? The apprentice tucked that scrap away and vowed to worm it out of Hans.

They left the wood press standing where it was and moved the rest one moonless night across the churchyard of St. Christopher’s, through a gate left almost imperceptibly ajar. The master’s pastor, clearly, was informed. From that black chink between two walls it was no more than a cat’s spring across the street that climbed to St. Quintin’s, into a gloomy courtyard, then to the low door of the Hof zum Humbrecht, its upper stories disappearing in the blackness of the night.

Four steps dropped to the battered earth of a ground floor. Joists the width and girth of a small horse held up the cobwebbed rafters stretching deep into the subfloor of the house. The clay gave off a smell of roots and piss and rats.

Chest by bench by bucket, tray by case, they hauled the workshop in. They didn’t smuggle only casting boxes, inks and ores and heavy crates of metal type. They had a giant bellows, too, rigged to a treadle, which any fool would know was meant to fan a forge.

Hans and Keffer fit the forge pipe in the chimney stones; Peter and big Ruppel set two casting stations up, and pried the shutters open to scour out the stench. The place was huge and had a space for every need: the longer, narrow halls for drying; the cavern with the forge where they would cast and run the press; a separate room where they could sit and put their letters into lines. The shapes below were echoes of the rooms in which the men would live just overhead.

The master sent for Konrad, back in Strassburg, to build a new press; he would not hire some local cretin who might blab. While waiting they removed the walls that separated room from room in that dim underworld. When it was done, no corner remained safe from his keen eyes, the ceiling held by a stripped forest of dark beams.

“The key is speed,” the master said, “efficiency, by God. No wasted step or motion.”

It seemed to Peter as he watched him pacing, barking orders left and right, that Gutenberg saw everything from a great height, his raptor eyes pinned to the slightest movement on the ground.

He sent across the city, then the river and the forests and the mountains, for materials. Paper from a mill in Piedmont, vellum out of Swabia, to supplement the stack they had. Ruppel went with him to the Wood Gate to inspect the hardwoods: maple and beech for benches, cases, tables.

He commanded coal and candles, ores and oxides. He was a muleteer, he cracked, a blooming drover. Whip-cracker, jack of all trades: polisher of stones, mixer of metal, deviser of devices, maker of machines.

Peter pitched in with his hammer like the rest. Gone was the little brownish lump from writing on his middle finger and the trace of burn on his left hand. He built the letter cases at a slant, then hefted his own letters, thick and heavy as old bones, and laid them in each wooden pocket.

Each evening he would stand a moment looking at this massive thing take shape. The naked beams, the half-wrought shop, loomed like the outlines of strange buildings to his eye: half memory-palace, half the vision of God’s City that Saint Augustine described.

The partners worked together in those months as they had never done before, and never would again. In the cave of Peter’s recollection he and Gutenberg and Fust are figures by a constant fire, stooped and sketching, talking and gesticulating at all hours.

What had been left of Fust’s eight hundred guilders quickly disappeared into the workshop’s maw; they would need more, much more. They’d make at least a hundred books; whatever they could get as a deposit from each buyer would bring something in, but even so they wouldn’t see real revenue for several years.

They came to a new business understanding, based not on faith but more on risk and its reward — and most of all on cunning. Neither partner harbored much illusion after all that wasted time; each knew precisely where the other stood. It was the firmest ground on which to strike a deal, Fust told his son: either both would win together, or else both would lose.

A new contract was drawn up, witnessed by the pastor of St. Christopher’s, one Heinrich Günther. It did not nullify their first deal of two years before, but simply altered its conditions. Johann Gutenberg still brought the know-how; Johann Fust still brought the gold, and held the workshop as collateral. Except that now new capital was to be raised, a second round, to get this fledgling business off the ground.

Peter’s father too invoked the old adage: Once burned, twice shy. Why should he bear all of the risk while Gutenberg reaped the reward? No longer would he simply play the part of banker. He took an equal share in this, their common and uncommon venture.

Fust pledged eight hundred guilders more, and they agreed to split, after expenses, the profits that accrued from what they called, a bit obscurely, to foil spies, das Werk der Bücher. The work of the books.

Excerpt of Gutenberg’s Apprentice © 2014 by Alix Christie. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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