Gutenberg's role reviewed

In a discovery that could prompt a major reassessment in the history of books and bookmaking, two Princeton University researchers have concluded that 15th century German printer Johannes Gutenberg did not, as has been long believed, invent conventional moveable type.

Using sophisticated digital imaging and computer analysis, Paul Needham, librarian of the Scheide Library, a private collection housed in Princeton's Firestone Library, and Blaise Ag|era y Arcas, a 1998 physics graduate, discovered discrepancies between individual letters that they could only explain by concluding Gutenberg used an alternative technology.

They announced their findings last month at New York City's Grolier Club, an organization of book collectors founded in 1884.

"The conventional idea of what Gutenberg invented," Needham says, "was what we would call a punch matrix system, where you engrave the steel punch with a character on its end, then use the punch to strike an impression in a matrix -- a block of copper. You pour the type metal, a lead alloy, into it. (The resulting letters) all look alike because they've all come from the same mold, the same matrix, and ultimately from the same punch. It really is mass production as we think of it today."

But in the Scheide Library's 1455 Gutenberg Bible, in a Papal letter printed by Gutenberg at about the same time and in other pre-1465 printing, Needham and Ag|era y Arcas found variations from letter to letter inconsistent with that kind of mass production.

The two men concluded that Gutenberg may have used an earlier technology that involves casting letters in molds of sand -- molds that could not be reused because one had to break them apart to get the letters out.

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Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601