Was Gutenberg's Printing Press Technology Stolen?

Stories circulated in Gutenberg’s lifetime of attempts to steal his invention while he was working on it. Can we know if they’re true?

Johann Gutenberg (right) in engraving from 1881. Shutterstock.

Johann Gutenberg (right) in engraving from 1881. Shutterstock.

March 8 2023
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

A reader has sent me an email with the note: “Be reassured: AI will replace Kissinger but never Philologos.” With it came a link to an article about ChatGPT published in the February 24 Wall Street Journal by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher. There they wrote:

A new technology bids to transform the human cognitive process as it has not been shaken up since the invention of printing. The technology that printed the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 made abstract human thought communicable generally and rapidly. But new technology today reverses that process. Whereas the printing press caused a profusion of modern human thought, the new technology achieves its distillation and elaboration.

It’s a comfort to know that AI will not take away my job. But let’s put aside ChatGPT and concentrate on “the invention that . . . made abstract human thought communicable generally and rapidly”—which, you may recall, figured several weeks ago in these pages in a column titled, “Did a 15th-Century Jew Beat Gutenberg to the Printing Press?

The Jew in question, you may also recall, was named Davin de Caderousse, lived in the southern French city of Avignon, and signed a contract in 1446 with a Christian goldsmith, Procopius or Procope Waldfogel, who was originally from Prague. This contract, unearthed in Avignon’s archives toward the end of the 19th century by the French clergyman Pierre Henri Requin, stipulated that Procope would provide Davin with a complete set of cast-iron Hebrew letters and with “devices and machines for Hebrew writing”—that is, with movable type and a mechanical press, the same combination that lay behind Gutenberg’s momentous invention.

My column, which was occasioned by the announcement of a Jerusalem book dealer, Moshe Rosenfeld, of the discovery of 32 printed pages of a previously unknown 15th-century Hebrew siddur that was very likely the work of Davin de Caderousse, asked the question: if the discovered pages were printed by Procope’s method of “artificial writing,” as he called it, was this method developed independently of Gutenberg’s invention or was it related to it? If independently, it need not have been an extraordinary coincidence: inventions are often, as it were, “in the air” well before a first model of them is produced, and experiments with cast-metal type were in progress in Korea and China 50 years before Gutenberg’s time. If, on the other hand, Procope’s “artificial writing” was pilfered from Gutenberg without acknowledgment, our siddur would have been, had there been patents in those days, a prosecutable publication.

Part of what makes this question so intriguing is that stories circulated in Gutenberg’s lifetime of attempts to steal his invention while he was working on it in Strasburg in the 1440s. (His Bible was actually printed in Mainz, his native town to which he moved back from Strasburg following a long residence there.) These stories do not refer to Procope Waldfogel. Yet when I asked Moshe Rosenfeld about them, he sent me a scanned page from the Jewish scholar Bernard Friedberg’s Toldot ha-D’fus ha-Ivri (“The History of Hebrew Typography”), published in Antwerp in 1937, at whose bottom appears a footnote with the comment, “We know from an old document that the goldsmith and silversmith Procope Waldfogel of Prague was said to be a friend of Gutenberg.”

Friedberg didn’t cite the source of this information, which if true would have made it highly likely that Procope was indeed an intellectual-property thief. When I asked Rosenfeld about it, he passed my query on to his research partner Elyakim Kassel, an Israeli materials engineer who had studied the paper that the siddur was printed on. Kassel then wrote me and suggested three possible sources that Friedberg might have based himself on.

The first of these is an 1847 monograph by the Czech writer and curé Charles or Karol Winaricky, in which it was argued that Gutenberg’s original last name was Kuttenberg, that he was born in a town of that name in Bohemia, and that he studied at the University of Prague before settling in Strasburg. Might Friedberg have come across Winaricky’s book and assumed that Gutenberg and Waldfogel, both goldsmiths by profession, must have known each other from Prague? It’s possible. However, since, as contemporary reviews of the book pointed out, the case made by Winaricky was a flimsy one, it is unlikely to have served as the basis for Friedberg’s statement.

A second possible source for this statement that Kassel brought to my attention is the Luzerner Buchdruckerlexicon, the “Lucerne Bookprinter’s Handbook,” in which mention is made of Procope Waldfogel having lived and worked in that city in the late 1430s. The significance of this is that also living there at the time was the Strasburg merchant Jörg Dritzehn. Jörg’s brother Andreas was a business partner of Gutenberg’s in a gem-polishing venture in Strasburg, and also in a secret project, contractually stated as involving “all [of Gutenberg’s] arts and crafts,” that could only have been the development of the printing press. After Andreas’s death, which was no later than 1440, Jörg sued Gutenberg for his brother’s share in the venture, won the suit, and was awarded possession of the still-not-perfected press. Could Waldfogel have known Jörg Dritzehn in Lucerne? Certainly. Could Friedberg have been aware of this and jumped to the conclusion that Gutenberg and Procope were friends? Perhaps, but that would have been a very big jump.

Finally, Elyakim Kassel reminded me that Strasburg comes up, too, in the Avignon documents unearthed by Pierre Henri Requin, in which a witness whose signature was appended to an agreement between Procope and Davin is identified as “Arbogaste of the diocese of Strasburg, a haberdasher.” This led to the theory, wrote Requin, that “Arbogaste must have known Waldfogel in Strasburg [thus confirming that Waldfogel was there], or better yet, worked in Gutenberg’s atelier and come to Avignon to transmit Strasburg’s typographical secrets to Waldfogel.” Yet Requin rejected this possibility. “Arbogaste,” he observed, “was a haberdasher, a profession having nothing to do with printing; he was domiciled in Avignon no later than 1435, was a citizen of the town, and appeared so frequently as a witness on its documents . . . that there is no possibility of his having traveled to Strasburg, let alone having resided there, during the years that Gutenberg inhabited that city.”

Thus, while Friedberg knew of Requin’s research, he could not have been encouraged by it to think that there was a demonstrable link between Procope and Gutenberg. If he had reason to believe that the two men were acquainted, it must have been on the basis of something else—something, unfortunately, that he did not bother to inform us of. Although Procope may have stolen Gutenberg’s invention in ways we have no idea of, there is simply no evidence that this was the case. Nor is there any that the first printed Hebrew siddur, which may also have been the first printed book in all of Europe, was a Gutenberg knockoff.