Digital Gutenberg
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We come to Gutenberg's third idea. As I said, the press was an interesting, but not altogether new idea. And movable type made of metal is a decided improvement over clay or wood, but also not altogether new. With what then does that leave us? It was not the book, of course. Books had been around for a very long time in the form of hand-copied manuscripts. And what is a scroll, but a book with a continuous page. And by some stretch the 5,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablets could be called books, too. There is nothing in the definition of the word that requires that the thing to be made of paper.

What Gutenberg did invent, what he did make that was entirely revolutionary in its effect, was the possibility of the edition. This is the possibility of not just making a book in many copies, but also the possibility of proofing, correcting, and printing many books that are as free of error as human hands can make them. In more philosophical terms, it is the possibility of mass producing an idea, each copy exact and true in every detail, and then having that idea put into many heads in many places at about the same moment. This had never been done before, not on this scale, and when Gutenberg did it nothing in our lives was ever the same again.

So you see, technology -- in this case the printing press and movable type -- was merely the means by which a more profound and creative concept found its way forward.

Gutenberg, poor fellow, was not much of a businessman. Although he did manage one more very important contribution -- an ink that would adhere uniformly to his metal type and transfer neatly to the page -- he eventually lost his press, most of his type, and what small fortune he had earned in the printing of his books. The details of that history are interesting, but not vital to our purposes here. What matters is that his idea spread quickly, and in a relatively short time Europe had what might be called a thriving book trade.


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