4445 entries. 93 themes. Last updated September 15, 2014.

1. From Gutenberg's Movable Type to the Digital Book, and Other Studies in the History of Media

1.D. Restating the Problem in Order to Compare the Fifteenth Century Transition in Media to that of Our Time

Taking the rapid adoption of ebooks and ebook readers into account, I believe that the clearest analogies between fifteenth century developments in book history and current developments may be obtained, if rather than attempting to compare the fifteenth century printing developments with the Internet and the World Wide Web, we narrow our focus to studying analogies between the fifteenth century transition from manuscript copying to print with the transition in our time from printed books to ebooks or digital books. Limiting the approach is useful because with respect to electronic books we may consider the Internet and the web analogous to the printing press rather than to the book itself.

If we view computing and the Internet-- the overall technologies on which digital books or ebooks are based-- as analogous to printing by movable type, the evolution of the book in our time, from nearly exclusively print before personal computing and the Internet to its current combination of print and electronic forms, appears remarkably analogous to the transition from manuscript copying to print that took place in second half of the fifteenth century. A related analogy may be drawn between the libraries of our time, with their holdings of physical books and their increasing focus on digital information, and the libraries of the fifteenth century, all of which contained manuscript books, which were increasingly augmented and supplemented by printed books as more and more printed information became available.

A Gutenberg-style press, circa 1568.

That the electronic book and ebook readers are adaptations of computing, networking, and various other electronic technologies is hardly different by analogy from the adaptations that Johannes Gutenberg, formerly a goldsmith, made to much simpler technologies nearly five hundred years ago when he adapted a wine or oil press for a printing press, adapted metal casting techniques to create movable printing types, and created an oil-based printing ink which would stick to his metal types. Gutenberg’s ink differed from the traditional water-based ink used to write manuscripts. 1.D.1 For a humorous music video on Gutenberg see Gutenberg ("Sunday Girl" by Blondie) by historyteachers, downloadable from YouTube.

The Eniac.
While the electronic book is the product of many different electronic technologies developed by numerous inventors over more than fifty years since the invention of electronic computing, it is probable that at least a few others besides Gutenberg were involved in aspects of the invention of printing.

Within the context of the slow-changing fifteenth century, printing by movable type was probably perceived as much more radical than electronic books are today within the context of our rapidly evolving habitual use of wireless devices such as laptops, tablets and cell phones for connection to the Internet. And even though the technology of early printing was far less complex than today's, its technology also evolved in stages. For example, from relatively recent historical research we have learned that the method of producing movable type attributed to Gutenberg seems to have developed in phases rather than as a complete system, and that Gutenberg’s initial technique of type casting (1454-55) was a precursor to the punch-matrix process which became dominant. Whether Gutenberg or someone else developed the punch-matrix process, and when this development might have taken place remains unknown. By the early 1470s the printing press that Gutenberg had developed was also improved, presumably by another inventor-- identity unknown but probably in Rome-- with the introduction of “a movable carriage which enabled the printer to place a whole sheet on the press and print it in two pulls from two successive moves of the carriage. This new procedure spread from Italy to other countries, and by the middle of the 1480s it had become generally available. This improvement, which sped up the process of printing, had a profound effect on the production of texts.” 1.D.2Hellinga, “The Gutenberg Revolutions” in Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007], 209.

Emulating manuscript codices which had evolved as information creation, transmission, and storage devices for over one thousand years, early printers copied manuscript formats in their page layouts and adapted manuscript hands in the design of their typefaces. Some of the earliest printers had previously made their living as scribes, and some called the new art of printing ars artificialter scribendi, or the art of writing by mechanical means.1.D.3Buehler, The Fifteenth Century Book: The Scribes, the Printers, the Decorators (1960) 17. The first scribe to adopt the new technology was Peter Schoeffer, the successor to Gutenberg’s printing equipment along with his partner Johann Fust.

The colophon of the 1457 Mainz Psalter, bearing the first printer's mark.
Schoeffer’s colophon for his exquisitely beautiful Mainz Psalter of 1457 described its innovations in scribal terms:

The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen…”

Published only two years after Gutenberg's 42-Line Bible, this magnificent book was:

A. The first printed book to include a colophon giving both the name of the printer and the date of printing.

B. The first work to incorporate color printing, with initial letters printed in red, light purple, and blue (from an engraved metal plate).

C. The first printed book to include music— two lines of music printed with a 4-line staff.

D. The first book to contain a printer's mark: the two linked shields of Fust and Schöffer hanging from a branch, the first of which was inscribed with the Greek letter χ for Christ, the second inscribed with the Greek letter Λ (for logos = word). 1.D.4Ten copies survived, and according to the ISTC, nearly all surviving copies are either incomplete or fragmentary. There are two issues: "a) of 143 leaves b) of 175 leaves, the latter designed for use in the diocese of Mainz." The only complete copy of the 175 leaf version is preserved in the Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. That copy is also the only one to include on its colophon leaf the first printer's mark.  None of the other extant copies of the 1457 psalter include this mark, and it is unclear whether it was originally published with only some of the edition, or might have been added to the colophon leaf of unsold sheets at some later date, after much of the edition had been distributed. (My thanks for Paul Needham for clarifying the problem of the printer's mark in the first Mainz Psalter.)

Though the unusually elaborate printed graphics in the Mainz Psalter are a partial exception to the rule, by necessity printers standardized and simplified the graphic form of the book, incorporating those features of script for their typefaces which were essential for communication, and rejecting “the endless variation in form and function that handwriting can create.” 1.D.5 Hellinga, “The Codex in the Fifteenth century: Manuscript and Print,” Barker (ed), A Potencie of Life. Books in Society [1993] 65-66. Like Gutenberg's 42-Line Bible or Fust and Schoeffer's Mainz Psalter, many early printed books were very beautiful in their own right. The efficiency that book production gained through the mass production process of printing inevitably caused printed books to lose part of the artistic individuality inherent in the process of writing out manuscripts one copy at a time; what was lost by mass production was replaced by a new aesthetic of print media.

To lessen the graphic difference between this new aesthetic and the traditional appearance of illuminated manuscripts, to which their customers were accustomed, some printers left space in their typographic designs for illuminated letters or other kinds of manuscript decoration, such as rubrication, to be added to books after printing. This process of first printing the text, and then having it decorated, followed the centuries-old pattern of manuscript production in which the scribe first wrote out the text, leaving space for illuminations, and then turned the pages over the artist who would do the illumination. The difference was that instead of requiring miniature paintings to be painted in by hand as in manuscripts, early printed books, when illustrated, incorporated printed images, either woodcuts or engravings, which could, at additional cost, be hand-colored or even illuminated to more closely resemble medieval manuscripts. Sometimes printed editions also incorporated printed woodcut initials which contained ornaments, or initials that were historiated with images, also in the style of traditional manuscript illumination, but printed on the pages along with the text. The printer, who was responsible for both the overall graphic design of the text and the images, often also acted as a bookseller, and sometimes employed artisans who also worked in manuscript production to produce printed book illustrations, reflecting an overlap of manuscript and printing production workers, techniques, and marketing. When copies were printed on parchment or vellum and illuminated they resembled traditional illuminated manuscripts even more closely.

Folios 7v and 8r of the Gottingen Model Book, which is a primer of sorts on the illumination of books.
A model book for manuscript and printed illumination circa 1450, reflecting the common source of both, is the Gottingen Model Book. The Mainz Psalter previously discussed was one of the very few early printed books which incorporated illuminated initials and other decorations printed in color, obviating any need for manuscript embellishment after printing.

Not unlike the earliest printers, present day designers of ebook readers emulate the most successful and familiar aspects of printed books, simulating the appearance of print on their high resolution electronic screens, providing familiar typefaces, page formats, and even simulating the process of turning pages. These hand-held devices evolved from desktop publishing, which was introduced in 1984-85 for the typesetting and page-layout of printed books. It was the key application in bringing the production of books and personal computing together on a large scale. Twenty years earlier the first computer text formatting program, TYPESET and RUNOFF, which was developed in 1964 for mainframes, was derived from the commands used by typesetters to format documents on specialized typesetting machines. TYPESET and RUNOFF was the forerunner of word processing programs, and also the forerunner of the HTML text and image formatting language used by web browsers to format web pages. Page formats of ebooks are, however, limited by screen sizes of the readers, and not yet suitable for large-format books; typefaces and point sizes presumably may be selected by users. If pagination changes with type size and ebook reader format, indexing no longer necessarily correlates to page number, but instead to places within the text. Because the page format is not necessarily static as it would be in a printed edition, rather than attempting to maintain footnotes at the foot of pages or at the back of a book, it may be efficacious to conceal footnotes under the text, as we have done in this online essay using this symbol: 1.D.o.Here is an example of a footnote. Because there is, at this time, no way of programming footnotes to renumber automatically as I continue to edit and expand these essays, I decided to identify them by their section, subsection, and footnote number, this example being numbered zero. Doing this allows me to better keep track of their numbers, a task I find difficult to manage in the HTML editor.

Beyond emulating features of the codex, designers and publishers of ebooks are beginning to exploit the advantages of the new media in their conception and creation of digital publications, resulting in multimedia, multi-sensory effects impossible with print. The most elegant way that I have seen this new approach described is by Meri Media, the London-based publishers of Post, the first independently published magazine for the iPad, the first issue of which appeared in January 2011. In May 2011 Postmatter.com described the project in this way:

"Post is a project born of love for magazines, and one dedicated to taking that love beyond paper and physical matter. A new frontier and paradigm in publishing, Post looks beyond the traditional rules of how and what magazines 'should be', in favour of speculating upon what magazines could be. It is about fashion, art, architecture, cinema, music, culture. It is about what's exciting now and tomorrow.

"Post is an only child, born of the iPad, with no printed sibling to imitate or be intimated by. Liberated from the imposing heritage of print culture, Post exists an entirely virtual realm, yet is intimately connected to material through the medium of touch. Inherently interactive Post presents a truly multimedia, mult-sensory journey from the first frame to the last, where the advertisements all built for Post by Post are immerse, tactile experiences.

"Post is not a thing. It is an idea. A non-surface whose pages dissolve and reform at your touch. It is material for the mind, the eyes, and sometimes the ears. An entire world existing only with a plane of smooth glass, tangibly alive, but cool to the touch. Let Post be your guide."

(I last revised section 1.D. on May 27, 2011.)

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