Johannes Gutenberg (circa 1400 – February 3, 1468) was responsible for one of the pivotal inventions in all of history: the moveable-type printing press. That invention, more than any other, allowed mankind to begin to collect and disseminate its collective knowledge and progress into the scientific and industrial revolutions. It almost didn’t happen. We owe this history-changing innovation to a spectacular scheduling error and the fact that Gutenberg was failing as a con artist.
Countless visitors were expected in the city of Aachen for its anniversary in 1423, and many businessmen planned on capitalizing on the occasion. The festivities attracted more than legitimate entrepreneurs; it also drew more than its fair share of con artists and crooks. Among these unscrupulous characters was Johannes Gutenberg.
Gutenberg teamed up with some colleagues to sell special mirrors that would capture “holy light” from the city’s religious sites. These mirrors could then be taken home so the owner could experience the captured light at his or her leisure, in the comfort of home. Confident they could make a fortune, Gutenberg and his associates sunk everything they had into acquiring inventory and convinced investors to lend them money to acquire even more mirrors. Loaded down with their special mirrors, the group set forth for Aachen, prepared to revel in the riches to come.
There was only one small problem. In their haste to get rich quick, they managed to get the date for the festivities wrong — by a whole year.
Loaded down with inventory they couldn’t sell, stripped of cash, and unable to repay their creditors, the situation became desperate. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Gutenberg was definitely in need. Drawing on an idea he had been kicking around for a while, Gutenberg told his partners that there was another way to make money. His idea, of course, was the movable-type printing press. The idea worked, and it did result in making Gutenberg and his associates a lot of money while simultaneously changing the world.
History is silent about what happened to all of the mirrors.