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
"Ah, in Mayence, is it?" exclaimed the landlord; "and
pray why do you leave that place and come to our good
 "I am a traveler," answered Gutenberg.
"A traveler! And why do you travel?" inquired the
"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
"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
 "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
"And a great plan it is!" cried Gutenberg. "Ever since
I was a boy at school I have been trying to invent some
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
 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
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.