February 27

Johann Gutenberg and his financier Johann Fust

Johann Fust, a money-lender of Mainz who had been a partner of Johann Gutenberg in the establishment of the world’s finest printing office, died in Paris on this day in 1466, whence he had gone to sell printed bibles. He was probably the victim of a plague which swept that city during that year. Fust has never been dealt with sympathetically by printing historians, and there appears to be some justification for such treatment. Inventors have traditionally been troubled by a lack of finances. Of course the bankers who have loaned them money have suffered in public opinion whenever they have attempted to protect their investments when endangered by impractical innovators.

The original agreement between Fust and Gutenberg, signed in 1450,stated that the partnership was to be for a period of five years, during which period the work projected by the inventor should be completed. Fust advanced 800 guilders at 6 per cent interest with Gutenberg’s tools and materials to be mortgaged as security for this sum. When these tools should be made and the materials (undoubtedly the types) manufactured, the banker was to furnish an additional 300 guilders every year to pay for the paper, vellum, ink, wages, and other supplies which would be required for the execution of the work. For all of this, Fust was to have onehalf of the profits ensuing from the sale of the products of the partnership and was to be exempt from the performance of any work or service connected with the partnership. In addition he was not to be held responsible for any of its debts.

But, like most inventors, Gutenberg was delighted only to be free of financial worries so that he could devote his entire energies to the problems at hand. He was confident that his project would be so highly successful that the revenues would completely satisfy the moneylender. He had already cast the types to produce a bible, each page of which was to contain 36 lines. Fust insisted, however, that such a book would be too costly to produce and it became necessary for Gutenberg to cut a new font of type, which allowed for a more economic job of production. Thus the final fruition of his hopes was delayed. The situation was not at all helped when Fust told him that the 800 guilders could not be paid at once. In fact, he waited for two years before making the payment.

With costs mounting, Gutenberg was soon in trouble. He readily agreed when Fust rewrote the contract to commute the 300 guilders for the three successive years and to pay 800 guilders immediately. Meanwhile production problems delayed the completion of the bible. Fust brought suit, in November of 1455, for the recovery of his money. It would seem that Fust had planned to embarrass the inventor, as he gave no previous warning of his resort to a legal proceeding. His future son-in-law, Peter Schoeffer, was already employed in the printing office and fully competent to continue the work on the bible without the inventor.

The money-lender won his suit and was awarded all the materials made by Gutenberg for the common profit. Apparently this was all that he desired, as there is no record of his asking for the return of the money loaned, which he could very well have done, as was his legal right. There is of course little likelihood that any additional details of the Fust-Gutenberg partnership will come to light, so depending upon the viewpoint of the contemporary reader, one or the other of the two men was a contemptible villain.

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