The Electronic Labyrinth

Johannes Gutenberg and The Printed Book

The earliest dated printed book, known as the Diamond Sutra, was produced in China in 868 CE, but it is believed that the practice dates back well before this date. The Japanese and the Chinese regularly used wood blocks carved in relief to produce Buddhist charms as early as the fifth century CE. Nearly six centuries later Europeans began block printing--whether or not this was influenced by examples from the orient or an independent development is not certain--for religious illustrations and playing cards. By the mid-fifteenth century the practice had expanded to include works such as Emblem Books. Block-printed publications were largely made up of illustrations with short captions and thus amenable to the wood block process which tended to favour the pictorial. The literate classes depended largely on hand-copied manuscripts.

The literary world was changed with the invention of movable type and its application to a series of known practices which were integrated into a method of mass production. The printing press had developed from the wine press in the Rhine Valley. It was there in 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg (c.1397-1468) began using the printing press in conjunction with a series of blocks each bearing a single letter on its face. The press used by Gutenberg was a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of hand-set letters held within a wooden form and the form was then press against a sheet of paper. Gutenberg's name does not appear on any of his work but he is generally accredited with the world's first book printed with movable type, the 42-line (the number of lines per page) Bible, also known as the Gutenberg Bible or the Mainz Bible (for the place where it was produced).

In three decades, printing spread across Europe where it became one of the chief means by which the Renaissance, the humanist re-birth of interest in learning and the classics, was transmitted from culture to culture. In time the printed book became a means of political revolution, the necessary technological corollary for the rise of the vernacular (ie. non-Latin) as a vehicle for literary texts, and the larger democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century.

In 1814, The Times of London introduced the first steam-press. Other technological innovations, such as linotype, invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergentahler, and the monotype machine, first used in 1897, helped increase the ease with which a page could be type-set. Together, these new methods of mass production helped pave the way to the growth of a mass reading public, a public which finally wrested literature from the closed circles of the educated and wealthy. This revolution entailed not simply a change in the world of literature but, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, a change in consciousness itself.

See also The Bible and The Electronic Bible.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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