There has been much speculation over the last decade or so – and it only continues to grow – that we have come to the end of “the age of Gutenberg”, that the Mainz man, who died on this day in 1468, has, as it were, had his chips.
“Movable type” strictly speaking, which was what Gutenberg invented, or developed for commercial use, has of course been on the way out for quite a few decades now, replaced by phototypesetting. What is new or newish is that many think the book as physical object is also likely to soon disappear. Certainly it is difficult to see how very many people will be able to make a living selling these artefacts, or indeed publishing them in, let us say, ten years, though they may well have a long afterlife as objets d’art.
But what if Gutenberg had never got round to movable type? We are inclined to take a development/invention like printing somewhat for granted but in fact it was not a simple but a complex and multi-faceted process involving the bringing together of separate technologies in type foundry, paper manufacture and ink manufacture, together with the adaptation of the press, previously used in foodmaking processes, to the purposes of book production. Then there are the matters of the financing of a new type of business, the finding of markets, the training of staff and the safeguarding of trade secrets.
It does not seem to be widely known that Gutenberg’s first get-rich-quick wheeze was in a less complex area. As Eva-Maria Hannebutt-Benz writes on gutenberg.de:
A little while later he tackled a project for which a cooperative was established. The city of Aachen planned to exhibit its religious relics and thousands of pilgrims were expected to visit this exhibition. For these pilgrims so-called “pilgrim-mirrors” were to be produced, small decorated metal frames of a tin alloy that were poured into various shapes and on which a convex mirror was attached with small clips.
The purpose of these mirrors, which many pilgrims pinned to their hats, was to catch the benign rays that were assumed to radiate from the relics and to take them home where they could benefit relatives as well.
Gutenberg seems to have been working on this idea much earlier, but the anticipated pilgrimage did not take place until 1440, so the return on capital was rather slow in coming – which we assume provoked him to think of other matters. Nevertheless, Dr Hannebutt-Benz assures us, “it can be assumed that mirrors were selling well in 1440 in Aachen and generated profit”.
It sounds to me as if the invention of the printed book may have been a close-run thing. If Aachen’s major pilgrimage had happened in, say 1437 or 1438, it could well have been the case that Gutenberg would have been making so much money from the hat mirrors that he would not have had much incentive to bother his head at all with the other business. After all there will always be more people interested in worshipping bones than in reading the Bible. If Gutenberg hadn’t “invented” printing can we be sure that someone else would have? Without his second great wheeze it is quite conceivable that we could now be facing a wait of a year to get the latest Henning Mankel from the scriptorium, while the futurologists and doom merchants would no doubt be predicting the imminent end of the Age of the Pilgrim Mirror Hat.