Digital Gutenberg
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By 1470, William Caxton had printed the first book in the English language and had begun to establish order in both spelling and syntax. Among the one hundred titles produced on his press was a book on the game of chess and at least two editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He was also an able translator of French and Latin, making it possible for him to bring to public attention works that would have otherwise suffered neglect. A popular literature in the English language was thus begun.

Foremost among those who took up printing and publishing was Aldus Manutius, who also had the honor of being godfather to the artist Albrecht Durer. In about 1494 he founded in Venice the first successful mass market publishing house. He was both a scholar and a good businessman, and the company he founded has endured to this day. It is worth noting that the great humanist Erasmus traveled to Venice to live with printers like Aldus. And by the end of the fifteenth century most of the antique manuscripts of Cicero, Horace, Vergil, Ovid, and Seneca had been translated and printed on the new presses. The name Aldus will come up again when I talk about computers. The Aldus company in America (now merged with Adobe Systems) has been a pioneer in computer publishing and graphics software.

Among the many fine craftsmen in the employ of Aldus Manutius were two very important designers of type: Nicholas Jenson, who created the Roman type, and Francisco Griffo, who created the Italic type. Almost all books up to that point had been printed in the German black-letter type, which was not terribly readable or attractive. The new letter styles had great appeal, particularly for those persons who would write and publish books for wide consumption.

The literature of France and the Renaissance begins with the sixteenth-century scholar and printer Robert Estienne. He attracted the interest and friendship of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited his shop often and may have made certain improvements to his presses. And in Estienne's employ was the great type designer Claude Garamond, whose type designs have inspired many of our modern typefaces. And, of course, these new styles made books increasingly "user friendly" for the writer as well as the reader.

One of the immediate effects of Gutenberg's invention was the appearance of popular books in the vernacular -- books in English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, and so on. Most books before this time -- the hand-copied books -- were written in either Greek or Latin, and therefore were inaccessible to the ordinary person. Moreover, the new books contained new ideas, and these new ideas encouraged thinking and invention on a broader scale.

As a result, there was an immediate increase in the demand for books, which of course spurred a general increase in literacy throughout Europe. All manner of books began to appear, including books on controversial topics, and books for children and women, two categories of effort previously ignored. H.G. Wells, in his famous Outline of History, says of that period: "The book ceased to be a highly decorated toy or scholastic mystery. People began to write books to be read, as well as looked at, by ordinary people."


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