a short history of writing and printing

I borrow from Wikipedia (one of our newer writing machines) to give us some initial and useful historical context for thinking about writing and the printing press as technology–as we head into the print shop at the Literary House. Birkerts (I presume) would be surprised to find that his own writing and book making would have been viewed in earlier times as responsible for making our minds lazy and stupid–a workshop of filthy and distracting creation long before Facebook. Ironically, there is deeper historical context for the history of writing offered in these two brief entries of Wikipedia than in Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies–an irony worth considering.


The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mailSMS), and in some cases, instantly (instant messaging).

The nature of the written word, too, had evolved over time to make way for an informal, colloquial written style, where an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking.

Also, writing creates the possibility to break spatial boundaries and travel through time, since a word normally spoken could only exist in the time and space it is spoken in. It creates a certain immortality, that could not be experienced without writing.

Socially, writing is seen as an authoritative means of communication, from legal documentation, law and the media all produced through the medium. Neil Postman further addresses social issues surrounding the written word in his article The Judgement of Thamus. [4]

The Judgement of Thamus addresses the ‘dark side’ of writing, by illustrating it with Socrates’ story about the Egyptian god Thoth. It tells the story of Thoth, the inventor of writing, who came to see king Thamus for a royal blessing on his invention, so it could be widely available to Egyptians. The king told Thoth:

“You, who are the father of writing, have out fondness of your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”[5]

This shows that though writing might give us wisdom, how to obtain it in a world full of so called ‘truths’ has become more difficult with the advent of writing. The story of Socrates also tells us that writing made the human mind lazy, since we are committing things down to paper, instead of memorizing it.

Printing press

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Munich, Germany.

printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The mechanical systems involved were probably first assembled in Germany by the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg around 1439,[1] based on existing screw-presses used to press cloth, grapes etc., and possibly to print woodcuts, which were printed in Europe before Gutenberg. Although both woodblock printing andmovable type printing press technologies were already developed first in ancient China and then later in the Chinese vassal state of what now Korea in East Asia several hundred years earlier, Gutenberg was the first in Western Europe to develop a printing press.

Printing methods based on Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world. It eventually replaced most versions of block printing, making it the most used format of modern movable type, until being superseded by the advent of offset printing.

Part of the series on the
History of printing
Woodblock printing 200 CE
Movable type 1040
Intaglio 1430s
Printing press 1439
Lithography 1796
Chromolithography 1837
Rotary press 1843
Flexography 1873
Mimeograph 1876
Linotype typesetting 1886
Offset press 1903
Screen-printing 1907
Dye-sublimation 1957
Photocopier 1960s
Pad printing 1960s
Laser printer 1969
Dot matrix printer 1970
Thermal printer
Inkjet printer 1976
3D printing 1986
Stereolithography 1986
Digital press 1993


Finely crafted books—like the 1249 Song Dynasty Bencao (materia medica) shown here—were produced by woodblock inChina as early as the ninth century, the earliest known being theDiamond Sutra.[2]

The overall invention of Gutenberg’s printing method depended for some of its elements upon a diffusion of technologies from China(East Asia), primarily the Chinese inventions and innovations ofpaperwoodblock printing, and possibly Bi Sheng‘s movable typeprinting press technology—in addition to a growing demand by the general European public for the lower cost paper books, instead of the exorbitantly expensive parchment books.[1] By 1424,Cambridge University library owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard.[1] The demand for these books was driven by rising literacy amongst the middle class and students in Western Europe.[1] At this time, theRenaissance was still in its early stages and the populace was gradually removing the monopoly the clergy had held on literacy.[1]

While woodblock printing had arrived in Europe at approximately the same time paper did, this method was not as suitable for literary communication as it was in the east.[1] Block printing is well-suited to the ancient written Chinese because character alignment is not critical, but the existence of over 100,000 ancient characters and hieroglyphic symbols made the ancient Chinese movable typetechnology somewhat inefficient and economically impractical, in terms of profits for the ancientChinese book publishers.[1] With the Latin alphabet, however, the need for precise alignment and a much simpler character set positioned movable type as a great advance for the west.[1]

The use of a press was a key technological difference provided European book publishers increased profits over their ancientChinese counterparts—the screw-based presses used in wine and olive oil production.[1] Attaining mechanical sophistication in approximately the year 1000, devices for applying pressure on a flat-plane were common in Europe.[3]

[edit]Gutenberg’s Press

In this woodblock from 1568, the printer at left is removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks

Johannes Gutenberg‘s work on the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehn—a man he had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill.[1] However, it was not until a 1439 lawsuit against Gutenberg that an official record exists; witnesses’ testimony discussed Gutenberg’s types, an inventory of metals (including lead), and his type molds.[1]

Others in Europe were also developing movable type at this time, including goldsmith Procopius Waldfoghel of France and Laurens Janszoon Coster of the Netherlands.[1] However, they are not known to have contributed specific advances to the printing press.[1][4]

Having previously worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman. He was the first to make type from an alloyof leadtin, and antimony, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books and proved to be more suitable for printing than the claywooden or bronze types invented in East Asia. To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what some considered his most ingenious invention, a special matrix enabling the quick and precise moulding of new type blocks from a uniform template.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than the previously used water-based inks. As printing material he used both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced in Europe a few centuries earlier from China by way of the Arabs.

In the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg made a trial of coloured printing for a few of the page headings, present only in some copies.[5] A later work, the Mainz Psalter of 1453, presumably designed by Gutenberg but published under the imprint of his successors Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, had elaborate red and blue printed initials.[6]

[edit]Historical Impact

See also: History of typography in East Asia

Printing as developed in East Asia did not make use of a printing press as in Gutenberg’s case. Although the invention of movable type in China and Korea preceded Gutenberg’s printing press, the impact of East Asian movable type printing presses was not as influential as it was in Western European society. This was likely due to the enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of porcelain tablets, or in the case of Koreametal tablets, required by the use of written Chinese characters. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of books, on subjects ranging from Confucian Classics to science and mathematics, were printed using the older technology of woodblock printing, creating the world’s first print culture.[7].

In contrast, the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe was comparable to the development of writing, the invention of thealphabet or the Internet, as far as its effects on society. Just as writing did not replace speaking, printing did not achieve a position of total dominance. Handwritten manuscripts continued to be produced, and the different graphic modes of communication continued to influence each other.

The printing press was also a factor in the establishment of a community of scientists who could easily communicate their discoveries through the establishment of widely disseminated scholarly journals, helping to bring on the scientific revolution. Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, “One Author, one work (title), one piece of information” (Giesecke, 1989; 325). Before, the author was less important, since a copy ofAristotle made in Paris would not be exactly identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author was entirely lost.

Because the printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common, though they previously had not been unknown. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing over several centuries from oral readings to silent, private reading. The wider availability of printed materials also led to a drastic rise in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe.

Within fifty or sixty years of the invention of the printing press, the entire classical canon had been reprinted and widely promulgated throughout Europe (Eisenstein, 1969; 52). Now that more people had access to knowledge both new and old, more people could discuss these works. Furthermore, now that book production was a more commercial enterprise, the first copyright laws were passed to protect what we now would call intellectual property rights. A second outgrowth of this popularization of knowledge was the decline of Latin as the language of most published works, to be replaced by the vernacular language of each area, increasing the variety of published works. Paradoxically, the printing word also helped to unify and standardize the spelling and syntax of these vernaculars, in effect ‘decreasing’ their variability. This rise in importance of national languages as opposed to pan-European Latin is cited as one of the causes of the rise of nationalism in Europe.

[edit]The art of book printing

For years, book printing was considered a true art form. Typesetting, or the placement of the characters on the page, including the use of ligatures, was passed down from master to apprentice. In Germany, the art of typesetting was termed the “black art,” in allusion to the ink-covered printers. The Black Art Press & Print in Baltimore, MD adopted their name for this reason. It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it easy to get similar results more quickly and with less physical labor. Some practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

Some theorists, such as McLuhanEisensteinKittler, and Giesecke, see an “alphabetic monopoly” as having developed from printing, removing the role of the image from society. Other authors stress that printed works themselves are a visual medium. Certainly, modern developments in printing have revitalized the role of illustrations.


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