A long academic work on the history of the advent of printing. The writing is scholarly (read: stuffy), but the subject is fascinating enough to make it worthwhile.
A talk presented at the 10th annual dConstruct conference in Brighton, England.
Furthermore the output of early presses drew on a backlog of scribal work; the first century of printing produced a bookish culture that was not very different from that produced by scribes. The more closely one observes the age of incunabula the less likely one is to be impressed by changes wrought by print.Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, page 26
An interesting point to consider in light of where we now stand with ebooks. So far at least, we’re not so much witnessing a revolution as seeing a basic conversion from one medium to the next. The production of books remains firmly geared towards print, with digitization occurring almost as an afterthought.
“Until a half century after Copernicus’ death, no potentially revolutionary changes occurred in the data available to astronomers.” But Copernicus’ life (1473–1543) spanned the very decades when a great many changes, now barely visible to modern eyes, were transforming “the data available” to all book-readers. A closer study of these changes could help to explain why systems of charting the planets, mapping the earth, synchronizing chronologies, codifying laws and compiling bibliographies were all revolutionized before the end of the sixteenth century. In each instance, one notes, Hellenistic achievements were first reduplicated and then, in a remarkably short time, surpassed. In each instance, the new schemes once published remained available for correction, development, and refinement. Successive generations could build on the work left by sixteenth-century polymaths instead of trying to retrieve scattered fragments of it.…the great tomes, charts, and maps that are now seen as “milestones” might have proved insubstantial had not the preservative powers of print also been called into play. Typographical fixity is a basic prerequisite for the rapid advancement of learning.Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, page 113
Given print culture, one may add to the contents of card catalogues; but there is no way of subtracting from them.Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, page 172
This is part of a longer argument that Eisenstein makes in regard to the changes wrought by mass-printing of books. Notably, that whereas before texts were frequently discovered and then lost again—given the scribal system’s inability to distribute a text widely or accurately—after mass-printing came of age texts were discovered, never to be lost again. Which begs the question of what happens when the text is entirely digital. Is digital text, with it’s greater distributive powers—able to appear in the laps of millions of readers moments after the author hits submit—also capable of the fixity which Eisenstein speaks of? Or are we returning to something akin to the scribal era, when texts appeared and disappeared, like players making their entrance then vanishing forever off the stage?
“The age which we commonly think of as characterized by versatility and the universal man was in fact the period when the walls between art and science, between politics and ethics, began to be built.” Because the walls were still low during the first century of printing, they could be straddled with relative ease; while the higher they grew, the more remarkable an earlier versatility would seem.Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, page 238
This presents a different perspective on the ideal of the Renaissance man than I have previously considered. Notably, that the ideal of being versed in both the arts and the sciences was one that could be broached because the scholarship of either was not yet established enough to create boundaries between them. And—more interestingly—it was the printing press that provided the stability for those boundaries to emerge.
In 1768, Ben Franklin published the first map of the Gulf Stream. Sailors had known about the Gulf Stream for some time, but most kept it a closely guarded secret; Franklin discovered a fisherman willing to divulge what he knew, and put that knowledge into printed form.
What Franklin does in this and other cases is to use “copper plate and letter printing” not so much to create new knowledge as to create public and durable knowledge. By the simple act of printing, he moves proprietary, secret, local, and potentially ephemeral information—something known to fisherman and whalers (and to whales, for that matter) but not to the majority of navigators, packet boat captains included—into the public sphere, so that it can widely “be of use” and so that it will not “die with the Discoverers.”Hyde, Common as Air, page 129
The first years of the printing press were similarly focused on durability: new writing was rare, but printers’ efficiency at releasing old, obscure texts prompted the renaissance, as well as a level of scientific advancement not seen in years past. Durable (or fixed) texts create a platform for knowledge and discovery that ephemeral texts cannot achieve.