Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Writing and Printing

Before Printing

In the world before printing, written documents were easily (and commonly) forged, hence suspect. Eyewitness testimony was considered more reliable. In a verbal world, reading was considered a vocal exercise. Reading was commonly done out loud and readers who could read without moving their lips were considered something of a prodigy. Techniques for memorization were widespread and well-developed.

Lest we think of the memorization feats of the Middle Ages as somehow beyond our abilities, we should put their achievements in perspective. Not everybody could memorize effectively any more than now. A minstrel who could repeat a hundred-line ballad after a single hearing was no more typical of the general populace than a triathlon runner is today. We should also bear in mind the things we can do that they could not. Most of us read at speeds that would have seemed miraculous to medieval people, and we read silently. We process information at far greater speeds than they did, and we can process multiple streams of information at once. Driving an automobile, let alone doing it while talking on the cell phone and listening to the radio, would have overwhelmed the mental capabilities of most medieval Europeans.

We have not evolved much biologically since the Middle Ages. If we could transport people from the Middle Ages, they might find our world overwhelming, but their children would grow up to be average 21st century Americans (most teens think their parents are from the Middle Ages, anyway!) People develop the mental talents most needed in their culture and time. Medieval and modern humans both performed mental feats that are equally amazing in their own way.

The Road to Printing

In order to print, three basic ingredients are necessary:

The press is the easy part: people had been pressing olives and grapes for millenia, and medieval Europeans had adapted the press for bookbinding, drying laundry - and paper. The bookbinding and paper-drying connections are crucial because a budding printer would routinely see and work with presses.

Paper is made by creating a slurry of fibers (originally linen, now usually from wood), depositing the slurry on a screen where the fibers mat together, then drying it. The Chinese invented paper thousands of years ago; it was carried west into the Moslem world and entered Europe about 1200.

It's not absolutely impossible to invent printing without paper; it seems just never to have happened. Even ancient Hawaiians did wood-block design printing on a form of paper created by pounding tree bark. Paper is absorbent, flat, flexible and can be made to controlled size and thickness. Before paper, writing had been done on papyrus, made by weaving reeds together, or parchment and vellum, made from the skins of sheep and calves, respectively. All three materials suffer from the drawbacks of being expensive, uneven in texture, and poorly absorbent.

Europeans had been doing printing, of a sort, for a long time. During the Middle Ages short religious pamphlets, even a few books, had been printed by wood blocks. The entire text of a page was carved, letter by letter, onto a wooden block. This method is too laborious and costly for mass printing (or is it? It hardly seems worth the effort to do this for a hundred books, but how about a hundred thousand? Maybe there's another factor at work here - perhaps nobody could imagine distributing literature on such a scale?)

The Chinese had invented printing with movable type. The Dutchman Laurenz Janzoon (1420-30) used blocks for individual letters. Soon afterward, someone else in Holland tried printing a new way. Goldsmiths were used to stamping their initials on their work with metal stamps. Someone came up with the idea of stamping text into copper sheets, then pouring molten lead on the sheet and using the lead replica for printing. In practice, the idea didn't work very well. Stamping a copper sheet deforms the adjacent letters too much, it was impossible to stamp to uniform depth, and the sheet and its replica could not be made flat enough. But it was a start.


Johannes Gutenberg refined the stamping concept about 1450 by using stamps to make master impressions, which could then be copied in molds in unlimited amounts to make individual letters. He made his type letters mostly of lead, adding tin for corrosion resistance and lower melting point and antimony for hardness. This is basically the modern composition of type metal. Type metal is one of the oldest unchanged industrial materials. The most astonishing thing about Gutenberg is that by the time he first appears in history, his system is up and running perfectly. However, as noted above, his work culminated several decades of tinkering by others. By 1480, there were printing presses in 110 towns. There were ten million books in print by 1500, an increase of 100-fold over the preceding century.

Technology and its Social Context

Printing in Asia

It's worth examining how printing was received in several cultures, and why it didn't develop in Europe much earlier. In China, where it originated, printing was used on a vast scale for printing official documents and annals, but never for mass literature. Much is made of the effects of China's ideographic writing system, where thousands of characters, each representing a syllable or word, are used. Certainly the Chinese system has profoundly affected everything they do, but they now have satellites and nuclear weapons. Clearly their writing system is not an insuperable obstacle to technology. Much more important, perhaps, was the Chinese emphasis on the importance of order and stability (coupled with the ability to deliver an acceptable quality of life much of the time), and their status system, which put bureaucrats and scholars at the top and traders and artisans at the bottom.

In neighboring Korea, the value decision was even clearer. Not only did Koreans know about printing, but someone in the 1400's even invented a phonetic alphabet for Korean - the system we use where each sound is represented by a single letter. Korean scholars rejected the change. They were using the complex Chinese system, considered it more elegant, and mastery of this complex system was the whole basis of their status. (By the way, since the Chinese system is ideographic, with symbols denoting concepts rather than sounds, it can be used for quite different languages like Korean or Japanese. In principle, it could be used for English - we would be able to communicate in writing with the Chinese though neither side would be able to understand the speech of the other.) Printing in China and Korea was used mostly for authenticating official documents, safeguarding against forgery. The idea of using printing for disseminating information widely either never occurred to anyone, or if it did, was considered undesirable.

Printing in the Islamic World

The first major book printed by Gutenberg was the Bible. In the Islamic world, where knowledge of the Koran is highly esteemed, one might think that printing presses would have sprung up immediately to print and distribute the Koran. Nevertheless, except for one brief period in Turkey, there were no printing presses in the Moslem world until about 1815. Moslem religious leaders were much more concerned about the negative effects of the printing press spreading ideas dangerous to faith than they were about the positive effects of spreading the Koran. The first printing press in the Moslem world was set up in Egypt by Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), who was perhaps the first modern Third World dictator, and it was set up, as in China, for the purpose of printing official documents and edicts, government-approved news and propaganda, and official forms. It's significant that printing was used in both places not so much for disseminating information as for authenticating it, by using a technology too limited, costly and controllable for casual imitation.

Printing in Europe

Apart from antimony, which wasn't discovered until the Middle Ages, there is absolutely nothing in a printing press that the ancient Greeks or Romans couldn't have invented. Antimony is desirable but not essential; the letters would just wear out faster. The lack of paper would be a limitation, but, if printing were in practice, one can hardly doubt that economic pressures would have quickly led to some improvement on papyrus and parchment.

Part of the answer is that economic incentives didn't really work in the ancient world. The ancient world had a very static concept of wealth as equivalent to gold, land, or slaves. In a static world, innovation isn't merely inhibited, it may be inconceivable. why print large numbers of books when only a few privileged individuals can afford to read them, and where disseminating information to slaves could be dangerous?

Certainly there must have been any number of conservatives in Europe who regretted the day Gutenberg was born. Europe's political fragmentation may well have been the key to the survival and spread of printing. For every ruler or cleric who saw a threat in printing, there was another who saw an advantage. The Pope was hard-pressed in the best of times to bend European rulers to his will; the one institution in Europe that claimed supreme power was in no position to exert it. There were, of course, both religious and civil controls over printing, but there were also too many ways of getting around them. Some countries like Holland were inherently liberal, books banned in Catholic countries could usually be printed in Protestant countries, and so long.

Political fragmentation is important, but comparison with the ancient world suggests that there had already been even more fundamental changes in the European world-view; innovation was possible, and was a way to upward mobility when traditional routes were unavailable. The Western concept of individual autonomy seems to be a critical element in explaining how printing evolved in Europe.

Effects of printing

By 1500 there were hundreds of presses in Europe and the number of books had increased by 100-fold. One of the genuine intellectual heroes of history was Aldus Manutius of Venice. He realized that beyond Bibles, psalters and official forms, there was a vast market if only somebody would print things worth reading. At this time, Western Europe was seeing an influx or refugees from the Byzantine Empire, which had finally fallen to the Turks. Manutius put them to work producing Greek grammars and dictionaries. Why? So readers would be able to read the Greek classics which the refugees were also bringing, and which Manutius was going to print and sell. Manutius created the first cheap mass-market books. To make the books more compact, he devised a smaller type face (now called italic) and in so doing gave Western culture another essential feature - the fine print.

He was also one of the first innovators to realize that, to make an innovation work, often an entire infrastructure had to be created; to sell the Greek classics, he first had to teach people Greek, which in turn meant that he had to create Greek reference books. By the time Aldus Manutius died in 1515, every single major work from antiquity was in print. Barring utter catastrophe, never again would Europe lose touch with its ancient knowledge. In recognition of his achievements, the citizens of Venice decked his funeral gondola not with the traditional flowers, but with books.

Another Venetian publisher worthy of respect is Daniel Bomberg, who set into type the Talmud, or collected repository of Jewish commentary on the law and the Bible. The Talmud had been a frequent target of destruction and desecration during attacks on the Jews, and only a handful of manuscript copies survive. Bomberg preserved Jewish learning and culture the way Manutius did Greek.

The availability of books meant a vast increase in literacy, and not just among the elites. Periodically, the elites debate whether or not the lower classes should be educated, and how much, and usually before they are done the lower classes settle the issue by educating themselves. So it was with printing. We know there was a large self-taught literate market among the lower classes because we have surviving examples of things published for them: drinking songs, collections of bawdy verses and satires, and so on.

In scholarly fields, printing led to the rapid dissemination of ideas. One reason Martin Luther did not suffer the fate of Jan Hus a century earlier is that, within a few months of his posting his famous Theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, bootleg copies were being printed all over Europe. Luther called the printing press the "last and greatest blessing of God" (probably not envisioning Mad magazine or Playboy when he said it!)

Printing led to the standardization and simplification of spelling. Gutenberg's type case was a lot more complex than a present one, because scribes had evolved myriad shorthand sybols over the centuries and readers would have thought their intelligence insulted if words had been spelled out entirely. As time went on and mass markets developed of readers who were not familiar with these scribal abbreviations (why is "abbreviation" such a long word?), they were dropped. Two that linger on are "&", derived from a shorthand form of the Latin "et", for "and", and "%", which started off as "per centum", then "per cent", then "p/c", then finally "%."

Finally, printing also provided a powerful stimulus toward accuracy, since works were now more likely to be read by others as knowledgeable in a subject as the author. Printing led to a profound change in our concept of "fact." Before printing, documents were suspect as too easily forged. Eyewitnesses and personal testimony were considered more reliable. Printing made written documents more authoritative than personal testimony. It was hard to fake printed documents. Before printing, people relied on memory to store facts. Printing changed the concept of "fact" to "printed fact", as seen in the modern statement "show me in black and white."

Printing in English, or Why is our Spelling so Chaotic?

Poor William Caxton. If anyone was a victim of bad timing, it was he. He set up the very first printing press in England in 1476. Now to set type in a language, it's necessary to decide on spelling, and the logical choice is the great literary classics of the language. Those would obviously be Shakespeare and the King James Bible, neither of which, unfortunately, would exist for another century or more. So Caxton fell back on the works of William Chaucer, who wrote about 1400.

Unfortunately, English was at the time going through a profound linguistic change called the Great Vowel Shift. If you think about it carefully, none of our English long vowel sounds are pure vowels; they are all diphthongs, or blends of vowel sounds. Listen carefully to the "a" in "lake" and it actually starts off as a short "a" and then glides into a long "ee" sound. The "ai" in "wait" is actually the technically correct way to spell this sound. Likewise the "i" in "life" starts off as a short "e" and then glides into a long "ee" sound. The "ei" in German words like "mein" is actually the technically correct way to spell this sound.

English speakers often wonder why foreign pronunciation is so "strange", for example, why "liter" isn't pronounced like "writer". The answer is that we are the strange ones. No other language uses "a" to represent the sound in "came" or "i" to represent the sound in "life." Complicating life is the fact that English has since borrowed words from just about every other language, but keeping the foreign spelling and pronunciation, so that some words are pronounced as in other languages, but many are not. Thus "liter" is pronounced as in the original French, but "writer" as it evolved in English.

Also, English was dropping a lot of other pronunciation customs. The "ch" sound of German was one. English speakers hate that sound. Just listen to a beginning German class struggle with "Ich" - they'll say "ik" or "ish", but not "Ich". English "light" and German "Licht" were once fairly similar in pronunciation. In a few cases we kept a sound but changed it to the easier "f" as in "cough." We dropped the initial "k" sound of "know", which is still pronounced in German words like "Knabe," and dropped the initial "w" of "write." We also stopped pronouncing final "e" on many words, so that "name", once pronounced "nahm-e" like in German, took on its present pronunciation.

Lots of other mutations took place over the years. One reason old poetry doesn't rhyme is that the words have changed pronunciation over the years. In 1600, short "e" was often pronounced more like "a", as the British still do when they say "clark" for "clerk." "Flood" and "good" once were exact rhymes.

Nobody quite knows why languages do these things at times, but poor Caxton set up his printing press right in the middle of it, standardizing English spelling as printing did for other languages, but in an instantly-obsolete form. If printing had come to English 50 years earlier, it might have fixed the pronunciation of Chaucer's time; 50 years later and English might have had a fairly phonetic spelling, but the accident of printing coming to England during a lingusitic revolution is the principal reason English spelling is so chaotic.

Modern Spoken English

Already hybridized twice, first with Norse, then later with French, English continued to borrow words. In the Renaissance there were extensive borrowings of commercial and sailing terms from Dutch and German, as well as extensive borrowings from Italian. Many of our military ranks are of Italian origin, like sergeant and colonel.

In discussing the origins of English I made the perhaps puzzling comment that Italian is perhaps the easiest foreign language for English speakers, despite the fact that English is a Germanic language with extensive borrowings from French. The reason is that Italian pronunciation is much closer to English than is French, that both languages have borrowed extensively from French so that Italian borrowed words are often easily recognizable, and that English has borrowed many terms from Italian. Since Italian is the closest Romance language to Latin, it's often easy to recognize Italian words by cognate terms in English, more so than in Spanish. You can perhaps guess that cane means "dog" from the English "canine", but how would you guess the meaning of the Spanish "perro"?

In modern English one of the most significant forces is the proliferation of new technical terms. Another interesting trend is the use of acronyms, or words created from the initials or syllables of other words. Other languages do it, too. Flak is short for Flugzeugabwehrkannone, or anti-aircraft cannon, and gestapo comes from geheime Staatspolizei, secret state police. It is a regular means of word formation in Russian; "gulag," a term made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is an acronym for Glavnoye upravleniye ispravitel'no-trudovykh lageryei (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps). In the days of the British Empire, when there was no air conditioning, high officials posted to India got rooms on the shady side of the ship. Since the voyage was mostly east-west, that meant staterooms on the left or port side on the way out and the right or starboard on the way home - port out, starboard home - or posh accomodations. The film Saving Private Ryan made movie-goers aware of the true meaning of "snafu" (situation normal, all f***** up) and its less well-known cousin "fubar" (f***** up beyond all recognition). These were just a few of a host of World War II acronyms, including:

The modern printed word

If the printing press made books more widely available, the process was still clumsy. Modern printing is the culmination of many improvements in the original process. Stereotyping, invented in 1790, allowed many copies of a page to be printed at once. The type was used to create a mold from which additional copies were cast. The copies, cast out of a solid sheet of metal, could be curved and mounted on a cylinder press, a device developed and refined between 1780 and 1820. Electroplating, introduced in 1848, was an improvement on stereotyping. Instead of casting a replica of the typeset page, electrical current was used to plate a thin copper coating over the type. The copper was then peeled off and used in a cylinder press. The linotype machine, invented in 1880, mechanized the typesetting process. A linotype (so called because the user can set a line-o'-type) is a typewriter-like device that allows type letters to be selected by pressing a key. Offset printing appeared in 1904. In offset printing, the type is used not to print a page, but to print on a rubber roller which in turn prints the page, hence the name "offset." This process allows faster printing and less wear on the metal master. Computers and word processing have further speeded up and automated publishing. The full impact of the Internet has yet to be seen, but so far computers show no sign of ushering in the much-proclaimed "paperless" society.

The printed image

Technical literature without illustrations is inconceivable. For printing to achieve its full potential it is as important to be able to print pictures as words. Even after the advent of movable type, pictures were still woodcuts printed separately and then bound along with the typeset text. In the 1500's, the intaglio technique was invented, the use of engraved metal. The image was engraved on copper plates and ink adhered to the engraved lines. This process did for pictures what type did for text and, among other things, made it possible to print the first really good maps. Engraving on zinc plates, introduced in 1868, refined the process.

Lithography, from the Greek meaning "stone-writing", was invented in the 1700's. A limestone slab was covered with wax into which the image was cut (or a master negative image could be used to print wax onto the stone). Acid was then used to etch the image into the stone, which was then coated with ink and used to print the images. Obviously the limestone has to be of exceedingly fine grain and uniform quality. Some of the best lithographic limestone came from Solenhofen, in Germany. The exceedingly calm conditions under which the limestone was deposited also made for superb fossil preservation, including the first fossils of Archaeopteryx, the first known bird.

Drawings are ideal for many purposes, but laborious to produce and subject to inaccuracy and bias. The quest to create images directly without human intervention began to bear fruit in the early 19th century and photography became fairly well-established by the 1840's. The American Civil War (1861-65) was documented by over a million photographs. Initially, photographs were hand-pasted into books, a costly and laborious process. The halftone method of breaking images into tiny dots of varying size and density made routine publication of photographs possible. Xerography (coined from Greek words for "dry writing") which uses electrical charges on a metal plate to record and print images, appeared in prototype form in the 1940's and began to become indispensable in the 1960's. A computer laser printer also uses xerography, except the image is created by a laser rather than a scanned image. In computer graphics the old proverb "A picture is worth a thousand words" is literally true - a moderately complex image takes about as much computer memory as a thousand words of text.

Full Circle

In pre-printing days, documents were suspect because handwritten documents were so easy to forge. Printing changed that; at least a forger would have to invest in a printing press or hire a printer (and thus leave witnesses or a paper trail.)

Computer technology has made forgery of documents and photographs easy. There is serious concern about how to maintain authenticity of documents (almost back to the pre-printing situation). Watermarks and holograms are a temporary solution, but will not stop people who are willing to spend the money and time to acquire forging technology.

Another problem is that digital information is far more vulnerable than printed information. With proper paper and care, printed documents can last a thousand years or more. Recording media, even CD's, are much less stable. Equally serious is the ease with which digital archives can be destroyed. Libraries can and do discard books, but nobody inadvertently fills a dumpster with books and carts them off to a landfill. It is perfectly possible, however, to destroy the equivalent amount of information in digital form by accident. 

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Created 18 September 1998, Last Update 14 December 2009

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