Digital Gutenberg
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Gutenberg, Part I

For my purposes we must visit a little history, in this case the vicinity of Gutenberg, Part One, which begins around the year 1440 in Mainz, Germany. This is generally conceded to be a very important moment in western cultural history, a revolutionary moment. We know this because its effects are everywhere evident, in our schools, libraries, bookstores, and, not least of all, in the numbers of us who can claim to be literate citizens.

When you mention the name Gutenberg most people will say one of two things: "Oh yes, the inventor of the printing press," or "Oh, you mean the guy who invented books." And, of course, neither is correct, and neither has much to do with why we celebrate the name Gutenberg or the men and events that connect to him.

Likewise, it is not the invention of the computer alone that has brought us to what I consider to be another equally revolutionary moment in our cultural history, a moment that may be even more profound than the first, and perhaps more breathtaking in scope. And, of course, I will have more to say about this as I go along. There is still the matter of Johann Gutenberg and what it was that he did do to change things.

He had three good ideas, one of which was actually original. The first was the idea that he could make a serviceable printing press by modifying a wine press. It was no miracle of technology, to say the least, but it worked. Many other people before him and during his time had experimented with making printing presses, and some of them are thought to have been superior to his. The second idea was to make for his printing needs a movable type with sufficient numbers of each character to allow whole pages of a book to be laid out at once. And, as he had in mind to print many pages in many copies, it was important that the type be sturdy and uniform. He was a goldsmith by trade, so it is not surprising that he decided to cast the type in metal. The idea of movable type was not new either. The Chinese inventor Pi Sheng had made movable type in clay in the early part of the eleventh century. Although it proved impractical -- the Chinese language has 40,000 characters, and the clay type tended to shrink irregularly -- it nonetheless was an idea that attracted some attention. And before that, early in the second century, the Chinese inventor Ts'ai Lun had made exquisite printing paper from mulberry bark and had carried the process of printing from wood blocks to a high degree of refinement. Knowledge of such things had made its way west to Samarkand and Baghdad, and eventually to Europe much before Gutenberg's time, prompting a fair amount of experimentation.

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