Breaking Books

The following, I think, is a plausible story around the invention of the printing press. Media has a darker business side. Perhaps it always has and always will.

The Gutenberg printing press was made to sell bible knock-offs. It was the ultimate as seen on TV product.

The year was roughly 1450 and Gutenberg had a brilliant idea.

Why have monks pray in silence hand copying a book that could take months, when this “device” could knock out hundreds in the same time and sell ’em for cheaper.

Most of the schmucks buying these things can’t even read ’em. It’s latin! And those who can, are rich folks who want to keep their money. Who cares if the thing doesn’t have gold flaked pictures.

It’s the deal of the century.

But how will he pay? Easy. Borrow it.

If Gutenberg had the gift of the gab to convince someone to pay him to learn how to polish gems, he can surely convince someone to give him money for this.

After all, it’s like printing money!

He found a nice shylock, sorry, “rich financier”, Johann Fust, who was kind enough to lend him 800 guilders.

Although he had most of the machine figured out the additional equipment and tools where a bit harder to get right. By roughly 1452, he had run the clock out and it was time to pay his debts.

Now, Gutenberg was probably crapping his pants a bit by now. You don’t owe money. You know that Shakespeare’s “pound of flesh” thing? That was a real thing!

It was a real shame, because he had figured out the kinks, but hadn’t printed any books yet to sell.

He shows the potential results to his financier praying not to be skinned and thrown into Debtors’ prison. Fust, decides not to break anything, gives Gutenberg a few extra guilders, and oh, one more thing, takes a cut of the score.

In the end it works. Making the bibles is going great, but this is where the Breaking Bad like story really starts.

Gutenberg brings in an apprentice to learn how to “cook” the books, a guy named Peter Schoeffer.

A few years later, roughly 1455, Fust, finally makes his play. Schoeffer wasn’t as talented, but who cares. It’s letters on a page what does quality matter.

Fust probably offers Schoeffer a whack less. But by now Gutenberg thinks he’s the Walter White of making books.

Rather than just whacking him — he takes everything from him, legally. Partners with Schoeffer and the press keeps printing.

It took 10 years for Gutenberg to be recognized as the inventor. He was 67. Died at 70.


  1. Johann Gutenberg — Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004 The Gale Group Inc.

Photo by Kyle Cleveland on Unsplash

Originally published on a now defunct blog
then again on Medium and Substack