When Johann Gutenberg successfully concluded his experiments with the new technique of multiple copying, news of the new invention spread with extraordinary rapidity. To posterity it has seemed quite natural that the text with which Gutenberg announced his new invention should be his famous 42-line Bible. Yet this choice was more daring than is sometimes recognised. The first half of the fifteenth century had seen a large increase in book production in many parts of Europe. But this growth in the production of manuscript books had not embraced texts of the Bible. The high point of manuscript production of bibles had been reached and passed in the thirteenth century. The large numbers created in this fertile period seem to have sufficed to meet demand in the succeeding two centuries. If gentry or noble households had acquired any religious texts in the first half of the fifteenth century then these were far more likely to have been books of hours, a class of book reproduced in massive numbers in this period.
Yet Gutenberg chose a Bible, perhaps not fully aware of how challenging a technical task he had undertaken. The task would consume him for over two years, and ruin him financially. Although the Bible was a technical triumph, it effectively ended Gutenberg's active career as a printer. In the years and decades that followed the Bible would continue to be among the most challenging projects that a printer could undertake; and yet many would do so, bringing to the market many hundreds of editions, in literally millions of copies, and in every variety of size, language and textual arrangement.
In consequence the Bible would come, in the 150 years after the invention of print, to occupy a special place both in the transformation of the European book world and in the cultural history of its peoples. It became a prime motivator in change in the geography of the book industry, yet for workers in the industry it also encapsulated the pitfalls that lay in wait for those who ventured too far, in a business where fortunes were as easily lost as won.
It is possible that Gutenberg's experiments with printing may have begun some years before his arrival in Mainz in 1444. During the previous five years in Strasbourg he had entered into a number of business associations.