Trip Through Time: Religious city birthplace of movable type

MAINZ, Germany - A huge Romanesque cathedral, whose entire bulk is difficult to fit into the viewfinder of one's camera, soars in the centre of the old city area in Mainz, western Germany, where restaurants serving local white wine line the narrow streets.

The religious city, with a history stretching across 2,000 years, is deeply connected with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press, a revolution in information technology.

In 1999, the US edition of Time magazine chose Gutenberg as the most important person in the past millennium for his achievement of inventing a printing technique that allowed for the mass production of books in the 15th century, when the handwritten manuscript was the main method of book production.

Every year, over 100,000 people from around the world visit the Gutenberg Museum to learn more about the great inventor.

Anette Ludwig, director of the museum, which is housed in a 1,000-year-old building near the cathedral, explained that without Gutenberg's invention, neither religious reform nor any revolution would have been possible.

His printing method was standard practice until the advent of computers.

However, Gutenberg did not acquire fame while he was alive.

Mainz was established around the beginning of the Christian era. It prospered as an important city reigned over by an archbishop, who had the power to decide the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers, the city prospered as a key junction of water traffic when Gutenberg was alive from the end of the 14th century to the mid-15th century.

Born as the second son of a wealthy aristocratic family whose father was an officer at a minting authority in the old town area of Mainz, Gutenberg often visited his father's workplace as a boy and learned how to mint coins and process metals by carefully observing the work.

This experience led him to the idea of processing lead to facilitate printing.

After his father died, Gutenberg moved to Strasbourg, about 180 kilometers south of Mainz, in 1428 and secretly studied printing techniques. Although he claimed to be a wine dealer and a mirror craftsman, he made a contract with three locals to set up a confidential business.

Gutenberg, who stuck to secrecy, reportedly seemed like a sorcerer to some people.

A dozen years later, Gutenberg succeeded in making printed matter by using a movable-type printing machine. In his pressing technique, he applied the principle of a press to extract juice from grapes for winemaking.

Gutenberg, who had constant troubles with his business partners concerning development funds, must have felt homesick, as it was back in Mainz where he started printing the 42-line Bible, his representative work.

About 500 years have passed since Gutenberg died. The statue of Gutenberg, who is called the greatest son of Mainz, was established in the old city in 1837 by donations from people in European countries.

The statue gently watches over people who wander by.

Never-ending affection

Veteran guide Margot Uhrig told me about an episode in which the statue was protected from air strikes during World War II by local people who hid it underground.

Although Mainz is not a big city, with a population of about 200,000, it is also known as a media city, as the headquarters of Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), a public broadcasting service with a national network, is located there.

No matter how technology develops, people's attachment to Gutenberg does not seem to fade away.

Johannes Gutenberg was born between 1394-1404.

He began his career as a smith of precious metals. After moving to Strasbourg from Mainz, he started to develop a movable-type printing technique on a fuller scale.

Around 1455, he printed the 42-line Bible. He died in Mainz in 1468. Much remains unknown about his life, including his appearance.