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Last year saw a curious item: the entire Bible on a hand-held computer. The technological wonder can look up chapters and verses instantly and project them on its screen, saving the reader from flipping pages. Whether or not this invention will replace printed Bibles, however, it pales before the technological breakthroughs of a German printer over five hundred years ago. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a modern church, or world, apart from the mass-produced printed page he made possible.

In Search of Efficient Printing

Christianity, following Judaism, has always been a religion of the Book. For centuries scribes dedicated themselves to copying the Scriptures by hand—primarily on papyrus or animal skin parchment. With the rise of monasteries, copying the Scriptures became the occupation for some monks. But it was truly a labor. The idea that every believer or family could have a Bible was unthinkable.

In the 1440s, the German Johann Gutenberg began experimenting with novel, mysterious ways of approaching printing. So did many other Europeans, all looking for a faster, cheaper way to produce books. Usually, if Europeans didn’t write by hand, they used hand stamps or woodcuts—an improvement, but still painfully slow. And the printing methods used in the Orient, primarily block printing, were unknown in Europe.

Gutenberg had an advantage: he was skilled in engraving and metal working. While living in Strasbourg, Gutenberg perfected several unique ideas: a hand-held mold that could adjust to cast any letter accurately and in large quantities; a durable tin alloy that melted and solidified quickly and without distortion; an oil-based ink; and a modified printing press. By about 1440, he had assembled the necessary components for mass-produced ...

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