Friday, July 11, 2003

Entrepreneurship in Unexpected Places

I suppose if I had thought about it for a few seconds, I would have concluded that the desire for profit played some role in the invention of the printing press. On the other hand, my impoverished image of 15th Century Europe normally does not include much space for entrepreneurs. Then tonight, I stumbled across this passage in Alister McGrath's interesting history of the translation of the King James Bible:

The control of sections of society was slowly but surely shifting from the old patrician families to the entrepreneurs. The emerging breed of venture capitalists was looking for business opportunities.... Our story concerns one such opportunity -- the invention of printing. The financial backing of the new technology of printing was quickly identified as one of the surest ways to make money. Investment in printing technology became increasingly attractive on account of a major social change -- the rise in literacy. People began to read; someone had to produce the books they came to demand.

Despite the success of Gutenberg's methods, he did not make a fortune. It seems Gutenberg's "venture capitalist" (Johann Fust) sued to recover his investment and was rewarded with ownership of Gutenberg's press. The other problem for Gutenberg: No patents. Even though he had a head start, others soon caught up.