Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin

The First Printer


One evening in midsummer, nearly five hundred years ago, a stranger arrived in the quaint old town of Haarlem, in the Netherlands. The people eyed him curiously as he trudged down the main street, and there were many guesses as to who he might be. A traveler in those days was a rarity in Haarlem—a thing to be looked at and talked about. This traveler was certainly a man of no great consequence. He was dressed poorly, and had neither servant nor horse. He carried his knapsack on his shoulder, and was covered with dust, as though he had walked far.

He stopped at a little inn close by the market place, and asked for lodging. The landlord was pleased with his looks. He was a young man, bright of eye and quick of movement. He might have the best room in the house.

"My name," he said, "is John Gutenberg, and my home is in Mayence."

"Ah, in Mayence, is it?" exclaimed the landlord; "and pray why do you leave that place and come to our good Haarlem?"

"I am a traveler," answered Gutenberg.

"A traveler! And why do you travel?" inquired the landlord.

"I am traveling to learn," was the answer. "I am trying to gain knowledge by seeing the world. I have been to Genoa and Venice and Rome."

"Ah, have you been so far? Surely, you must have seen great things," said the landlord.

"Yes," said Gutenberg; "I have walked through Switzerland and Germany, and now I am on my way to France."

"How wonderful!" exclaimed the landlord. "And now, while your supper is being cooked, pray tell me what is the strangest thing you have seen while traveling."

"The strangest thing? Well, I have seen towering mountains and the great sea; I have seen savage beasts and famous men; but nowhere have I seen anything stranger than the ignorance of the common people. Why, they know but little more than their cattle. They know nothing about the country in which they live; and they have scarcely heard of other lands. Indeed, they are ignorant of everything that has happened in the world."

"I guess you are right," said the landlord; "but what difference does it make whether they know much or little?"

"It makes a great difference," answered Gutenberg. "So long as the common people are thus ignorant they are made the dupes of the rich and powerful who know more. They are kept poor and degraded in order that their lords and masters may live in wealth and splendor. Now, if there were only some way to make books plentiful and cheap, the poorest man might learn to read and thus gain such knowledge as would help him to better his condition. But, as things are, it is only the rich who can buy books. Every volume must be written carefully by hand, and the cost of making it is greater than the earnings of any common man for a lifetime."

"Well," said the landlord, "we have a man here in Haarlem who makes books. I don't know how he makes them, but people say that he sells them very cheap. I've heard that he can make as many as ten in the time it would take a rapid scribe to write one. He calls it printing, I think."

"Who is this man? Tell me where I can find him," cried Gutenberg, now much excited.

"His name is Laurence—Laurence Jaonssen," answered the landlord. "He has been the coster, or sexton, of our church for these forty years, and for that reason everybody calls him Laurence Coster."

"Where does he live? Can I see him?"

"Why, the big house that you see just across the market place is his. You can find him at home at any time; for, since he got into this queer business of making books, he never goes out."


The young traveler lost no time in making the acquaintance of Laurence Coster. The old man was delighted to meet with one who was interested in his work. He showed him the books he had printed. He showed him the types and the rude little press that he used. The types were made of pieces of wood that Coster had whittled out with his penknife.

"It took a long time to make them," he said; "but see how quickly I can print a page with them."

He placed a small sheet of paper upon some types which had been properly arranged. With great care he adjusted them all in his press. Then he threw the weight of his body upon a long lever that operated the crude machine.

"See now the printed page," he cried, as he carefully drew the sheet out. "It would have taken hours to write it with a pen. I have printed it in as many minutes."

Gutenberg was delighted.

"It was by accident that I discovered it," said old Laurence. "I went out into the woods one afternoon with my grandchildren. There were some beech trees there, and the little fellows wanted me to carve their names on the smooth bark. I did so, for I was always handy with a penknife. Then, while they were running around, I split off some fine pieces of bark and cut the letters of the alphabet upon them—one letter on each piece. I thought they would amuse the baby of the family, and perhaps help him to remember his letters. So I wrapped them in a piece of soft paper and carried them home. When I came to undo the package I was surprised to see the forms of some of the letters distinctly printed on the white paper. It set me to thinking, and at last I thought out this whole plan of printing books."

"And a great plan it is!" cried Gutenberg. "Ever since I was a boy at school I have been trying to invent some such thing."

He asked Laurence Coster a thousand questions, and the old man kindly told him all that he knew.

"Now, indeed, knowledge will fly to the ends of the earth," said the delighted young traveler as he hastened back to his inn. He could scarcely wait to be gone.

The next morning he was off for Strasburg.

At Strasburg young Gutenberg shut himself up in a hired room and began to make sets of type like those which Laurence Coster had shown him. He arranged them in words and sentences. He experimented with them until he was able to print much faster than old Laurence had done.

Finally, he tried types of soft metal and found them better than those of wood. He learned to mix ink so it would not spread when pressed by the type. He made brushes and rollers for applying it evenly and smoothly. He improved this thing and that until, at last, he was able to do that which he had so long desired—make a book so quickly and cheaply that even a poor man could afford to buy it.

And thus the art of printing was discovered.