Make your own free website on


4.3 A Short History of Print

The origin of writing is easier to discover than the origin of speaking. It did not happen so long ago and it leaves a trace. In a brilliant piece of detective work, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, followed that trace to the origin of writing in small, clay tokens used in the Middle East from 8000 to 3000 b.c. [SCHMANDT-BESSERAT]. At that time and place, there were dramatic changes within both the technosphere and the sociosphere. Instead of wandering around from place to place, hunting animals and gathering plants, we learned to domesticate animals and plants, so that we could settle down in one place. The domestication of plants and animals enabled agricultural societies to accumulate more food than was immediately required. This surplus food could be stored for later dry days or traded for other goods. Accounting systems had to be devised to keep track of what was stored and what had been traded.

Hunter-gatherer societies had used tallies - marks on bones to indicate, for example, the number of years since the last meeting of the clan - just as a prisoner may make scratches on the cell wall to indicate the number of days in captivity. However, as we moved into an agricultural society, life became more complicated, just as the prisoner's life would become more complicated when released. Tallies could not distinguish between jars of oil and bushels of wheat. Tallies evolved into tokens - clay figures of different shapes to represent different things. Thus, for example, spheres for jars of oil and cubes for bushels of wheat, enabling us to represent four jars of oil with four spheres.

For convenience, the four clay spheres could be put in a clay envelope to represent a transaction involving four jars of oil. For further convenience, you could make impressions from the four spheres on the surface of the envelope so that you did not need to break open the clay envelope to see what was inside. You now realize that the clay spheres in the envelope are redundant - they have been replaced by their impressions on the envelope. Since the envelope now need not contain tokens, it can be flattened into a tablet.

Now that you have the idea of representing things by impressions on a two-dimensional surface, you can extend beyond representing concrete objects to representing abstract ideas. One basic dichotomy within abstract ideas is between quantity and quality. You need a set of symbols representing numbers and a set of symbols representing things. Thus, your four jars of oil are represented not by four concrete spheres but by an abstract symbol representing "four" and another abstract symbol representing "jars of oil". Separating quantity and quality permits you to use the symbol for "four" for four jars of oil, four bushels of wheat, or four of whatever.

Those symbols, which evolved into mathematics and writing respectively, enabled us to store not only food but information. Writing evolved through pictograms, as in Egyptian hieroglyphics, in which things are represented by images which resemble them, to a system in which the basic symbols represent the sounds of language.43 Thus, the progression is from representations of the objective world to representations of the subjective map. It is this shift which enables us to map the basic units of writing (graphemes) on to the basic units of speaking (phonemes) and thus piggy-back the second generation of media on the first generation of media.

The second generation of print got a huge boost in the fifteenth century with the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg (1400-1468). This democratized the distribution of writing. Until then, it had been accessible only to a privileged minority of scholars. Books were precious and scarce, since laboriously copied by hand mainly by monks in monasteries, and available only to those who had laboriously learned to read. The first printed book from metal movable type - the Gutenberg Bible - embodied a conscious attempt to simulate the illuminated manuscripts produced by monks [VAN DOREN, Page 153]. As we will see, our story of media demonstrates time and again, the influence of old media on new, as the new media struggles to find its exclusive niche within the communication system.

Various innovations in printed books also contributed to their accessibility. Ivan Illich came to a conference on computers in education in Montreal. Since I have long been an admirer of his book De-Schooling Society [ILLICH], I attended his talk expecting to hear how the computer now finally enables us to de-school society. He devoted the entire talk to a forty-year period following the invention of the printing press. Books did not appear right away as we now know them. During those forty years, we learned such taken-for-granted design features as leaving spaces between words, using upper and lower case, dividing text into paragraphs, books into chapters, numbering pages (indeed dividing a document into pages in the first place), including a table of contents and an index.44 Probably the "punch-line", which he never reached since his talk inspired so many questions, was that we are in the midst of a similar period with respect to the computer. It will be some time before we assimilate it into our media system.

The invention of the typewriter by Christopher Latham Scoles (1819-1890) further contributed to the democratization of writing.45 The printing press helped democratize the consumption of print, the typewriter helped democratize the production of print. To print your own writing, you did not need a printing press but only the much cheaper typewriter. You had essentially a personal printing press. However, there is a vast difference between being printed and being published. Once printed, it must be distributed, and the means of distribution are available only to the few with the vast resources required.

The democratization of the production of media was thus not accompanied by an equivalent democratization of the distribution of media. Freedom of the press applies only to those who own a printing press.46 The publication of books and newspapers involves a high cost of entry. Thus, those industries evolved into a few-to-many communication system in which a few entrepreneurs produced the books and newspapers which were read by millions of readers. The history of newspapers is thus the story of powerful moguls - Randolph Hearst, Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, etc. - who gain enormous power because of their access to a huge audience.

An alternative system using this second generation of media evolved into the Post Office. Everyone has access to this system and can be the source as well as the destination. Here the story is not of powerful moguls but of creative visionaries - Benjamin Franklin who first conceived the idea in 1732, Rowland Hill who initiated a simple system of payment in 1837 (pay by weight rather than by the number of sheets of paper or the distance the paper was transported), Jacob Perkins who invented the postage stamp in 1840,47 Henry Cole who invented the Christmas card in 1843, Baron Paul Julius von Reuter who thought of the pigeon post in 1849, William Hepburn Russell who started the pony express in 1860, and some unheralded genius at the British Post Office who invented the postcard in 1870.

With each generation of media, we will find that it can be used in autocratic or democratic ways. The newspaper industry and the post office are the autocratic and democratic options within the second generation, and we will see that television and telephone are the autocratic and democratic options in the third generation. We are currently witnessing the autocratic and democratic forces battling for control of multimedia and the internet.

43   My friend, Don Kingsbury, disapproves of the iconic representations on buttons in the Macintosh Operating System because they are a regression to an ancient inefficient system. As those icons proliferate, I'm beginning to see his point. "Cut", "Copy", "Paste" are easier to read than the various alternative iconic systems which have emerged. In newer programs, the user can find out what an obscure icon means by passing the mouse over it. Jef Raskin, the genius behind the Macintosh interface, who now argues that even this simple interface is too complex, points out that you may as well then replace the icon with its meaning [RASKIN].

44   Even silent reading was an innovation during this period. St. Augustine expressed amazement that St. Ambrose could read without moving his lips [MANGUEL, Page 42]. More recently, we have acquired the art of reading erotica without moving our hips.

45   It also introduced an important concept into the history of technology - the QWERTY phenomenon. The traditional keyboard was designed to slow typists down, since the keys stuck when they typed too quickly. The keys no longer stick but we are stuck with the purposefully inefficient QWERTY keyboard since so many people have been trained on it.

46   I once told a friend that Conrad Black had just bought a newspaper. He said "So what? I buy a newspaper every morning". His whimsical comment nicely encapsulates the difference in power between the newspaper-buyer as source and as destination. Now, of course, the democratization of distribution is enhanced by the internet. "Publish" is just one command in one pull-down menu.

47   If you come across his first stamp - the penny black - don't use it to mail a letter. Your letter will be returned, stamped "Insufficient postage"!