Our Civilization – The Printed Word


It makes sense to assume that the oldest written communication was a stick drawing in the sand.  Following this quite soon (as seen from where we are today) were rock paintings, paintings on animal hides etc.

Fast-forward past pictograms, cuneiform letters and hieroglyphics, which are not technically the matter of this post as all were applied by hand with a brush, stick or otherwise to a surface.  Therefore they could be regarded as an archaic form of writing, but not print.

To quote Wiki on the topic:

“The use of round “cylinder seals” for rolling an impress onto clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3000 BC, where they are the most common works of art to survive, and feature complex and beautiful images. In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In Europe and India, the printing of cloth certainly preceded the printing of paper or papyrus; this was probably also the case in China. The process is essentially the same – in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until at least the seventeenth century.”

So far we have covered the concept of writing down language, and of printing images on cloth, silk, and papyrus; but in China, what stood in the way of printing books, newspapers (“news silks”?) and similar, was the alphabet itself:  The Chinese written language has over 6000 “letters” or symbols in its alphabet.  It was simply not practical.  (I’m told that today, Chinese children on average learn to read English in school before they learn to read Chinese/Mandarin.)

So we need to look at a third factor:  The phonetic alphabet.  And this ingenious system of 26 letters only, emulating sounds rather than each letter being a symbol for a complete word, we inherited from the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?  They were a seafaring nation of traders (who btw also invented the keel boat so they could cross the ocean, and it is likely that they had contact with the American continents).   (Read more about the Phoenicians here.)  What happened to the Phoenicians?  Wiped out, annihilated… by Alexander the murderer of ancient civilizations Great.

That’s an aside.

The Gutenberg Press:  (Quoting Wikipedia🙂

“In 1041, movable clay type was first invented in China. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, borrowed money to invent a technology that changed the world of printing. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable/moveable wooden or metal letters in 1436 (completed by 1440). This method of printing can be credited not only for a revolution in the production of books, but also for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts.”

(Why they call him an inventor if he copied the whole thing from China, and that over four hundred years (!), I’m not quite sure about.)

Another source, the Catholic site “New Advent”, has the following to say:

“(Henne Gänsfleisch zur Laden, commonly called Gutenberg)”  […] “His cognomen was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors “zu Laden, zu Gutenberg”.”  […]

(Have a peep, this source has some very entertaining reading:)

“The trades which Gutenberg taught his pupils and associates, Andreas Dritzehn, Hans Riffe, and Andreas Heilmann, included gem-polishing, the manufacture of looking-glasses and the art of printing, as we learn from the records of a lawsuit between Gutenberg and the brothers Georg and Klaus Dritzehn. In these records, Gutenberg appears distinctly as technical originator and manager of the business. Concerning the “new art”, one witness states that, in his capacity of goldsmith, he had supplied in 1436 “printing requisites” to the value of 100 gulden; mention is also made of a press constructed by Konrad Saspach, a turner, with peculiar appliances (screws). The suit was therefore obviously concerned with experiments in typography, but no printed matter that can be traced to these experiments has so far come to light. The appearance at Avignon of the silversmith Waldvogel, who taught “artificial writing” there in 1444, and possessed steel alphabets, a press with iron screws and other contrivances, seems to have had some connection with the experiments of Gutenberg. As of Gutenberg’s, so of Waldvogel’s early experiments, no sample has been preserved. In the year 1437 Gutenberg was sued for “breach of promise of marriage” by a young patrician girl of Strasburg, Ennel zur eisernen Tür. There is nothing to show whether this action led to a marriage or not, but Gutenberg left Strasburg, presumably about 1444. He seems to have perfected at enormous expense his invention shortly afterwards, as is shown by the oldest specimens of printing that have come down to us (“Weltgerichtsgedicht”, i.e. the poem on the last judgment, and the “Calendar for 1448″).”  [end of quote]

It follows from this mess that although printing with mobile clay letters had been done in China, it really caught fire when it was brought to Germany (probably via the silk road).  Like with every good invention there are half a dozen “inventors” all of whom can be credited for some aspect of the whole machinery, who sue each other for rights.

Gutenberg commercialized the Gutenberg Press by churning out bibles.  For the first time ever the Holy Book was available to the common citizen, and not exclusively to monks and priests.  He didn’t per se invent the concept of printing a shape on a paper; not even the idea of movable letters; but he developed a system and put enough research into that “art” that it became resilient enough for large editions.

Or to put it in other words:  He made the printed book available to the public, via his machinery.  He made it a daily part of our wider civilization.

At some point I want to do a post on the development of computers.  Right now I’d like to invite everyone who managed to read the whole post, to discuss…  does Europe have a “claim” on book printing as our innovation?



(  😉 don’t forget to take a peep at our printed and e-printed commercialized books at www.pkaboo.net. )\



3 thoughts on “Our Civilization – The Printed Word

    • Yes, exactly. And yet by that they changed the face of civilization and the world as we know it. Without the information revolution, we’d still be farming in the Middle Ages. Without the printing press.

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