Laurens Janszoon Coster (ca. 1370, Haarlem, the Netherlands – ca. 1440), or Laurens Jansz Koster, is the name of the legendary inventor of the printing press from Haarlem. Since the late 1890s, Haarlem has been willing to concede that perhaps Mainz printed earlier, in the person of Johann Gutenberg.
He was an important citizen of Haarlem and held the position of sexton (Koster) of Sint-Bavokerk. He is mentioned in contemporary documents as an assessor (scabinus), and as the city treasurer. He probably perished in the plague that visited Haarlem in 1439-1440; his widow is mentioned in the latter year.
There are no known works printed by Laurens.
Hadrianus Junius, otherwise known as Adriaen de Jonghe, wrote this story in 1588 in his book Batavia, which was quoted by Cornelis de Bie. Now known primarily for his Emblemata, Junius moved to Haarlem in 1550, and wrote several books while being the rector of the Latin School there. His story was echoed by his friend Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, who started a printing business in Haarlem in 1560. Later Samuel Ampzing (with the help of Petrus Scriverius) repeated the story in Lavre-Kranz Voor Lavrens Koster Van Haerlem, Eerste Vinder vande Boek-Druckerye (1628) with illustrations of the invention. According to Junius, sometime in the 1420s, Coster was in the Haarlemmerhout carving letters from bark for the amusement of his grandchildren, and observed that the letters left impressions on the sand. He proceeded to invent a new type of ink that didn't run, and he began a printing company based on his invention with a primitive typesetting arrangement using moveable type. Since the Haarlemmerhout was burned during a siege in 1426, this must have been early in the 1420s. Using wooden letters at first, he later used lead and tin movable type. His company prospered and grew. He is said to have printed several books including Speculum Humanae Salvationis with several assistants including the letter cutter Johann Fust, and it was this lettercutter Fust (often spelled Faust) who, when Laurens was nearing death, broke his promise of secrecy and stole his presses and type and took them to Mainz where he started his own printing company.
Story by Ulrich Zell
However, there is one support for the claim that Coster might be the inventor. In the anonymous Kölner Chronik of 1499, Ulrich Zell, a printing assistant from Cologne, who was then between 60 and 69 years old, claimed that printing was begun in Mainz, based on knowledge from Holland used to print Latin grammar texts (Donatus). Neither Coster nor Haarlem are mentioned in that chronicle. If true, this points to Johann Gutenberg about a decade after Coster's death. However, the first securely dated book by Dutch printers is from 1471, long after Gutenberg. Either way, Coster is somewhat of a Haarlem local "hero", and apart from a statue on the Grote Markt his name can be found in many places in the city.
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