March 23, 2012

Book 101 - The Printing Press

What would the life of a reader look like without Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press? Most likely not all too different as someone else would have come up with the same ideas. After all, Gutenberg hasn't been the first to implement a form of moveable type. The Chinese already did that about five hundred years earlier. I guess this is a bit like Columbus not really being the one who "discovered" America, but I digress.

Copyright by Alte Bilder

The earliest dated printed book known is the Diamond Sutra, which was printed in China in the year 868. While this is the oldest such book we know about, it's likely that book printing may have occurred long before this date. In 1041 a movable clay type was first invented in China. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable and movable first wooden, and later on metal letters in 1436. Whatever inspired Gutenberg to his printing ideas, he must have had very good knowledge of chemistry and mechanical engineering. It's not just about carving letters out of metal, slapping ink on and then pressing these onto paper. His metal type made the invention of new, oil-based inks that would stick to the type, necessary. Just the same there was the need for a device that could transfer (or press) the ink evenly onto the pages.

Of course progress didn't stop here, on the contrary.

And apropos inventions. Piracy of intellectual property is not an invention of modern society. The first "pirates" already rubbed their hands in greedy delight shortly after the invention of the printing press. By around 1525 Martin Luther could already find that the unauthorised versions of his German Bible were being turned out at a rate ninety times that achieved by his own printers (and you thought all those Gucci fakes that street vendors try to sell you are bad). Copyright was developed largely to discriminate piracy from authorized publishing, and to criminalize the rampant copying.

How about a fascinating conversation starter? Each piece of movable type, including letter forms, punctuation, and blank spaces, was originally made by hand. Some printers created their own typefaces, also called fonts. Some of these fonts are still used today. Garamond, for example, is on many computers and is named after the French printer Claude Garamond. Now imagine the printing press had never been invented and books would only be copied by hand. That'd be some seriously long wait for the next novel by our fav authors. Though admittedly such books would have a certain charm (especially when the copier leaves out essential words, oh dear).

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