A Reading Note

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.

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Common as Air

Lewis Hyde

Hyde addresses the history of copyright, and demonstrates that the founding fathers were not at all fans of it.