Gentlemen, Please Remove Your Hats!

Written by Dr. John L. Lund

Would you like to see the first book in the world ever printed on the Gutenberg Press? It was a Bible! Prior to Gutenberg’s press it took months to produce a single copy of the Bible or any other book. Without the invention of “movable metal type” and the development of European paper mills, it is doubtful there would have been a successful outcome of the Protestant Reformation or an age of enlightenment. In a manner of a few years there were more than 2,500 Gutenberg type presses in every major town in Europe. Between 1450 A.D. and 1500 A.D. there were more than 15,000,000 books printed.

The first Gutenberg Bible came to the United States in 1847. It became part of the collection of James Lenox, the 19th-century book lover. It was the Lenox’s great library that formed the bases upon which the New York Public Library was built. That very copy can be seen today in the New York Public Library. There is a tradition that when the first Gutenberg Bible arrived in New York that the European agent said to the officers at the Customs House “Gentlemen,please remove your hats!” before they could see a copy of the first book to be printed upon a Gutenberg Press. The honor and privilege of viewing a Gutenberg Bible is still a special experience for those who love and appreciate knowledge. Johann Gutenberg‘s, given name was “Henne Gansfleisch zur Laden.” He invented the first printing press in the 1440s A.D. The first book ever to be printed upon his press was the Bible in Latin. Forty-eight copies are known to have survived, but of these only twenty-one are complete. Twelve of the surviving copies were printed on vellum [calf skin] with only four of the existing copies being complete editions. The other surviving Gutenberg Bibles were printed on paper. There were only a total of about 180 copies originally produced, including about forty-five on vellum.

Wouldn’t you like to travel to Mainz, Germany, the birthplace of Johann Gutenberg and go to the Gutenberg Museum and see an original Gutenberg Press and two of the first Bibles to be printed? The last Gutenberg Bible sold at an action for $25,000,000 dollars. There are two copies of the Gutenberg Bible at the British Library in London. The Austrian Nation Library has one in Vienna, Austria. There is a copy at the French National Library in Paris. Munich, Germany at the “Staatsbibliothek” retains an original and another can be found in Stuttgart, Germany at the “Landesbibliotek.” The one at Stuttgart was purchased for the bargain price of 2.2 million US dollars in 1978. The “Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal” in Lisbon and next door in Burgos, Spain additional copies can be seen. The National Library of Scotland at Edinburgh is a proud possessor as is the 600 year old English school for boys at Eton College in Berkshire, England. Other complete copies can be found at Cambridge, Oxford, and the John Ryland’s Library at Manchester, England. Ironically, two copies at Leipzig, Germany were taken by the Red Army during the Second World War and are somewhere in Moscow, Russia. In the United States complete copies can be viewed at the Morgan Library in New York City, in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress, at Harvard, at Yale, and at the University of Texas.

All of these rare and historically important pieces of history have one thing in common. You will have to travel in order to see them. Now you know where they are. All you have to do is to pick a location and plan a trip to see the book that changed the world.

Before Gutenberg printed the first book ever printed upon a press with movable metal type, which was the Bible, he printed a single sheet with a poem titled, “The Last Judgment” in 1446 A.D. This poem was based on the New Testament scripture found in Revelation 21:5-8.

The Last Judgment
(Translation from German)
See where the great incarnate God, Fills a majestic throne;
While from the skies his awful voice; Bears the last judgment down.
[“I am the first, and I the last, Through endless years the same;
I AM is my memorial still, And my eternal name.
“Such favors as a God can give; My royal grace bestows:
Ye thirsty souls, come taste the streams, Where life and pleasure flows.]
[“The saint that triumphs o’er his sins, I’ll own him for a son;
The whole creation shall reward; The conquests he has won.
“But bloody hands, and hearts unclean, And all the lying race,
The faithless and the scoffing crew, That spurn at offered grace;
“They shall be taken from my sight, Bound fast in iron chains,
And headlong plunged into the lake; Where fire and darkness reigns.”]
O may I stand before the Lamb, When earth and seas are fled!
And hear the Judge pronounce my name, With blessings on my head!
May I with those for ever dwell; Who here were my delight!
While sinners banished down to hell, No more offend my sight.

It would be four more years before the Gutenberg Bible would begin to be printed in 1450 A.D. In that first edition printed in Latin there would be two columns with forty lines per column. There were no page numbers, word spacing, indentations or paragraph breaks. In less than 50 years there were more than 2,500 printing presses in Europe and in the Middle East. By 1500 A.D. they printed an astounding 15,000,000 books. That many books are now printed each year with 1,432,079 new books with new titles alone as of 2006. Since Gutenberg’s first copy of the Bible rolled off his press in the 1450s, the Bible Society estimates that by 1992 more than 6,000,000,000 (billion) Bibles have been printed in 2,000 languages and dialects.