Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century?

Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century? For those of us interested in the history of information this may be a one of the most intriguing and challenging questions, and one that might be considered so overly broad that it is very difficult to answer in any definitive way. I was initially motivated to build HistoryofInformation.com in an attempt to confirm or deny in an authoritative manner whether the transition since 1945 from a world in which information was predominately recorded, distributed and stored on paper to the world that we are presently experiencing, in which information is primarily created, distributed and stored in digital form, may be compared to what occurred in the mid-15th century after Gutenberg invented printing by movable type. As is well known, between the years 1455 and the end of the 15th century, printing by movable type caused information that previously had been predominately recorded, distributed and stored by manuscript copying to transition to a world in which information was predominately distributed and stored in printed form. In 2005 I published an essay in my sourcebook on the history of information technology, From Gutenberg to the Internet, that asserted as much. The book was a result of several years of research on the history of computing, and while I knew that my research on computing had been thorough, and I had had been dealing in rare books and manuscripts for decades, I had not spent that much time studying the history of books, printing and related subjects. I concluded that I had not provided sufficient evidence to back up my assertion, and that I had undoubtedly glossed over key details. I also suspected that I might have been wrong to make the comparison, since logic would say that comparing events 500 years apart must be problematic, and I thought that further research would help settle the matter. This motivated me to begin years of research on the history of books, printing, and the history of information and media in general. The more I studied these subjects the more I wanted to learn. For me the history of information is a lens through which to view many aspects of history. Because I have always learned best through writing, building HistoryofInformation.com became a way to explore and study many aspects of the past.

As I built out the timeline database, from time to time I attempted to improve my answer to the question by writing drafts of lengthy essays on my website. In retrospect, becoming immersed in the details tended to complicate rather than clarify my judgment on the larger question. Sometimes I held the position that the comparison between the information revolution of the 15th century and our time was valid, and from time to time I thought the changes in so many social and technological factors over five centuries, many of which are documented in HistoryofInformation.com, made the comparison too complicated to support. Later I took a more conciliatory approach, thinking that a comparison was valid, but only by analogy since there were too many differences between occurrences 500 years apart. Twenty years after I embarked on this research project, after I have absorbed and documented the details in the 5000-plus entries in the database, I am confident of my understanding of the problem, and I concluded that the answer to this very general question is less dependent upon the innumerable details that you will find in HistoryofInformation.com than on how we define cultural or scientific revolutions. Therefore, with the help of the database to supply facts as needed, the question can be answered briefly.

To express my thoughts on this matter I have incorporated links primarily to entries within HistoryofInformation.com as a way of providing details and examples to support my argument. They are often arbitrary selections from many entries in the database that would support similar conclusions. By doing so I have substantially compressed an essay that would otherwise require many more pages if the examples to which I have linked, and other examples, had to be incorporated into a narrative. Linking to the database in this way also illustrates a few of the innumerable ways in which HistoryofInformation.com may be used.

The “scientific revolution” is usually understood as occurring in the 16th century. Works by Andreas Vesalius, Leonhard Fuchs, and especially Nicolaus Copernicus, published between 1542 and 1543 are typically cited as evidence that the scientific revolution was underway. In 1962 the historian of science and philosopher Thomas Kuhn published a philosophical and historical sociological work in which he provided an analysis of features of scientific revolutions in general entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this work Kuhn showed that revolutions in science are not clean replacements of one theory with another like many political revolutions, such as the American revolution in which monarchy by Britain was replaced by democracy. Instead Kuhn promoted the concept of paradigm to describe the shift in consensus that scientific revolutions involve as “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners” 1 As Kuhn wrote, changes in consensus do not eliminate prior theories and understanding. One of the best examples of this is how the theory of evolution by natural selection, as propounded by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, still remains unaccepted by significant numbers of people, including some scientists, even after an enormous amount of scientific evidence has accumulated to support it in the 160 years since it was first published. In addition, scientific evidence continues to accumulate for the competing theory, Lamarckism.

Another paradigm shift occurred in the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther beginning in 1517. This is sometimes characterized as a revolution because it created a new religious paradigm for many Christians through Protestantism, even though it did not replace the Catholic Church. Luther’s adroit exploitation of the new media of printing for the promotion and distribution of his views through his prolific publications in the vernacular has been credited as a crucial factor in the success of the Reformation. With respect to the invention and development of printing by movable type in the mid- 15th century, the Catholic Church, not an institution that typically rapidly embraced radical change, became a proponent of the new technology almost immediately. As HistoryofInformation.com extensively documents, like Judaism and Islam, Christianity has been a “religion of the book” since the composition of the Gospels. Even though as early as 1471 church authorities worried about loss of control over what their literate parishioners could read caused by the rapid spread of printing, the church also recognized the huge advantage of the new technology to distribute more religious information to more people faster and at lower cost. Because the church and its schools was the primary market for books in the first decades of printing the first books printed by Gutenberg and the first generations of printers included many religious treatises and other works used in education in Christian schools, some of which, like the several very early printed editions of the Latin grammar by Donatus, were literally almost read out of existence. Obvious examples of the extensive church support of the earliest printers were the establishment of the first press in Italy in the monastery of Subiaco, and the establishment of the first press in England by William Caxton in Westminster Abbey. By 1500 printing presses were established in 282 cities in Europe, and while there is no way to quantify the exact percentage of information that was being recorded, distributed and stored through print relative to what remained being recorded, distributed and stored through manuscript copying, or just recorded in a single copy on paper, it is obvious that a book printed in 300-1000 copies or more would have a faster and wider, and cheaper distribution than a book or pamphlet which had to be painstakingly copied, a single copy at a time, by hand. Relative to the total amount of information flow, printing was the dominant medium by 1500, if not earlier, even though, to a gradually diminishing extent, manuscript copying persisted.

Ignoring the thousands of intermediate developments between the 15th and 20th centuries documented in HistoryofInformation.com, and travelling more than five hundred years forward to the date the first electronic computer, the ENIAC became operational in 1945— coincidentally the year in which I was born— we may observe that computing did not begin to become truly pervasive in society until roughly fifty years later with the development of the personal computer in the 1981, and the wide availability of the Internet beginning about 1990. Long before this, as early as 1955 more news was distributed by radio and television than through print. The growth of electronic media relative to print was confirmed by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his study, Tracking the Flow of Information published in 1983.

The existence of diverse electronic media, including telephone, radio, and television, and the way that they have converged on the Internet, has complicated any comparison between the much simpler revolution from manuscript copying to print in the 15th century and that of our time, yet from our vantage point in 2020 it is evident that many of the same factors are in play. From its slow beginning in 1945 digital information became increasingly dominant, all the while traditional physical print media continue to play significant roles, much the way manuscript copying persisted to a gradually diminishing extent after printing predominated at the end of the 15th century. We may also observe that printing spread around the world much more slowly than it spread through Europe, and printing was not generally practiced in Islamic countries until the 19th century, and was slow to be established in Muslim culture, much as Internet access is not evenly distributed around the world in 2020. Today printed books persist with the development of electronic books, and the existence of digital libraries. If we want to use analogies, we can also say that in the world of digital information the computer and the Internet are analogous to the printing press in the production and distribution of digital books. 

Are we living through a media revolution like the one that occurred in the mid-15th century? If we define a cultural revolution as a paradigm shift rather than necessarily a complete replacement of one medium for another, the brief answer is clearly yes. That being the case, how much does the question matter? Having immersed myself in the details involved in answering this question for twenty years, I have also concluded that understanding the complex multi-faceted development of information and media that lead to the present matters more than attempting to compare complex developments five centuries apart.

Jeremy M. Norman
April 4, 2021

1. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 10.

Will HistoryofInformation Survive Functionally in the Longer Term as a Set of Printed Books?

On July 16, 2020 I celebrated my 75th birthday, and though I remain in good health, from time to time I wonder about the fate of HistoryofInformation after I inevitably pass. Because HistoryofInformation traces the history of information and media back to the earliest records thousands of years ago when I think of the longer-term future I think in terms of centuries rather than decades, and I am cognisant that the issue of long term preservation of digital information remains unresolved chiefly because we have not had experience in preservation of data beyond the seven decades since 1945 when electronic computing began. Data preservation has been of interest to me since the beginning of HistoryofInformation more than twenty years ago. You will find relevant entries on various elements of the long term data preservation problem within HistoryofInformation, indexed under the Conservation, Preservation & Restoration theme.

As of 2020, no one knows how long the "most durable" storage media currently used for electronic data may be operational, or whether a more permanent medium for storage will ever be invented. Claims are made  periodically for various long term data preservation schemes. One of the more credible schemes is the Arctic World Archive stored 300 meters under the permafrost in a decomissioned coal mine on the island of Svalbard, Norway. That program stores digital information on proprietary Piql film made of polyester coated in silver halide crystals and powder-coated with iron oxide. Supposedly the Piql film has a life span of at least 500 years, and possibly up to 2000 years, if stored in optimum freezing conditions. This attempt at a fail-safe scheme stores the data in a passive way, but does not maintain its functionality. Instead it provides methods that the proprietors hope will allow the data to be brought back to functionality at some date projected into the future. It is conceived as a kind of time capsule for data. Coincidentally the designers of the scheme selected an advanced method of microfilming for data storage.

My longer term goals for HistoryofInformation differ from the intention of the Arctic World Archive. What I would like to facilitate is the functionality of the data and programming online for some extended period after I pass. The value of the database is in its accessibility and utility as most of the information that I have written about in this project is available elsewhere in printed books or in digital form. Beyond the uncertainty of the durability of storage media, in any attempt at long term preservation we recognize that programming conventions are in a constant state of evolution, and the most logical assumption must be that even if the data comprising HistoryofInformation exists, at some point in the future it may no longer be accessible or operational. Digital archives at governments and institutions currently work under the assumption that digital information must be curated for long term preservation. By this I mean that for "long term preservation" the data will have to be migrated to new storage media as they are developed and it will also need to be converted to new programming conventions as they evolve. Anyone who has been doing word processing for the past thirty or forty years already possesses word processing files that are no longer readable. If this problem occurs within a few decades what will happen in a century?

A corallary of this requirement of curation is that preservation of digital information is far more costly and complex than simply placing a book on a library shelf. This we have learned through our few decades of experience. How much data will be preserved, and how much data might be lost in these active conversion processes intended to maintain data and its functionality, and how much data will be lost simply through "neglect," are long term unknowns. Undoubtedly some of these issues may be resolved in the future, and theoretically there could be a time where data left in storage will be accessible to readers with the knowledge or skill to read them over millenia, just like cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics described in HistoryofInformation are read by experts today. 

I am also aware that many other people share my concerns about the long term preservation of data and its functionality, and that there are organizations such as the Internet Archive that intend to provide long term curated storage facilities for websites like mine. More than likely I will contract with one or more organizations to provide services to maintain my websites after I pass. But no one can predict the long term future of any organization with certainty, and there is always the possibility that different people in different circumstances will interpret any agreement signed during my lifetime in a different way at some point in the future.

In 2014 I added an entry to HistoryofInformation headed Imagine Publishing the Wikipedia in 1000 Physical Volumes??. It described a crowd-funding project to actually print out the Wikipedia in a set of maybe 1000 printed volumes that might have comprised over one million pages at the time. As far as I know, the project was never funded, and never occurred. Because of the dynamic nature of the Wikipedia, a print-out would have only captured it at a moment in time. Would that have any value? When I wrote that database entry in 2014 I doubted the value of such a project. When I returned to this issue in November 2020 what was available from the would-be publishers of that massive 1000-volume project was a series of single-volume current paperback books on specific subjects based on Wikipedia data published by PediaPress.com in association with the Wikipedia.

Thinking about the 2014 scheme to print out the Wikipedia, by November 2020 when I sat down to write this brief essay, I realized that my perspective had changed. As I think about long term preservation of HistoryofInformation, if that will actually occur after I pass, I realize that as of 2020, as possibly for the forseeable future, the only way to assure preservation of my work over a significant period of time may be to print out each of the roughly one hundred themes in HistoryofInformation as a series of volumes on archival paper, and to place them in whatever institutional libraries might be willing to preserve them. As much as I would like to ensure that my data will be curated into the future, how could I ascertain that? How will I have confidence that any data curation agreement that I sign will be implemented long after the people who signed the agreement have died? What we do know from long experience, as documented in HistoryofInformation, is that some copies of books that are distributed widely, and preserved in libraries, tend to survive with a reasonable degree of probability, and that archival paper has a shelf-life of at least 300 years. Many books printed in the 15th century are in beautiful legible condition today.

It seems ironic that, in spite of the immense technological progress since electronic computing began in 1945, when we think of long term preservation of data and its functionality in 2020 the only method in which we truly have long term confidence remains traditional printing in book form on archival paper. With this in mind I am wondering whether HistoryofInformation will someday occupy fifty or one hundred bound volumes, and if the bound volumes exist on library shelves whether they will ever actually be consulted and used.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 20, 2020

The Cumulative Nature of Media and its Blending on the Internet

In November 2020, having written nearly 5000 entries in HistoryofInformation over the past more than twenty years, I have observed few overriding generalizations that come to the surface of the tens of thousands of facts and presumably millions of words in the website. One generalization that has been confirmed over and over again is the cumulative nature of media. By this I mean that new media rarely totally replace older means of recording, distributing and storing information. Instead, older and former media that contain useful information tend to be preserved and may remain consulted by researchers. Some of the most obvious examples of this generalization come out of the so-called printing "revolution" caused by Gutenberg's invention of printing by movable type in the mid-15th century. By the end of the 15th century printing technology spread widely over the countries of Europe, and was established in 282 cities. Yet in spite of the increase in speed of production and distribution of information caused by the introduction of printing, and the resulting cost savings, and the gradual dominance of printing over manuscript copying, information was still produced, distributed and stored in manuscript for centuries thereafter, well into the 18th century for specialized usage.

Printing an edition of a text was often a way of safe-guarding a text that might have surivived in only a handful of manuscript copies made during the Middle Ages. An edition of two or three hundred copies provided reasonable assurance that some of the copies would survive. On the other hand once a printer issued a printed edition of a manuscript there was the tendency to destroy the original manuscript since, as the printer might have assumed, the manuscript would no longer be needed. Because there was nearly always some difference between the manuscript and the printed text information was lost with the destruction of the manuscript on which the printed text was based.

There are numerous examples of the relationships between manuscript copying and printing in HistoryofInformation, and we know that some people persist in writing documents by hand today. A dramatic example of the persistance of handwriting in the 20th century was Shelby Foote's writing his huge 1.5 million word The Civil War: A Narrative entirely by hand with a nib pen, and later transcribing his manuscript into typewritten copy. The work was eventually printed in three volumes totalling 2,968 pages. Admittedly Foote's using a nib pen rather than a typewriter for such an immense manuscript was an exceptional example of writing by hand in the 20th century.

A different example of the persistance of media is the survival of more than 500,000 ancient papyri and papyrus fragments from the deserts of Egypt. Even though papyrus had been superceded by parchment or vellum it continued to be used in Europe for special purposes as late as the twelfth century, and vellum continued to be used as a medium for writing and printing well into the 21st century even though paper was introduced to Europe as early as 1100. Because papyrus deteriorated in damp climates most of the papyrus records created in Europe during the Middle Ages deteriorated beyond the point of recognition, and what survived are mainly papyri from the dry Egyptian desert. Ironically, from around the same time period as ancient Egypt, destruction of buildings in ancient Mesopotamia by fire probably caused the archives of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform script, such as the Library of Ashurbanipal, to harden like clay fired in a kiln, and therefore to survive intact to modern times.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the cumulative nature of media, especially when media deteriorates to point where it cannot be used. The most prevalent examples of this are books printed on acidic wood pulp paper that crumbles when handled. Other examples are old movie films that can even become explosive because of chemical reactions in the film can. When there is valuable information on deteriorating media of this type conservators attempt either to restore the paper or convert the information to another medium. Before computing and digitization that we use for preserving text and images today brittle books were often microfilmed, and deteriorating movie films were copied on to more stable film stock. Microfilm records have a long shelf-life, and may still be accessed with microfilm or microfiche readers today. Most typically old films are being converted to digital files for streaming or recording on Blu-rays or DVDs while the original movie film, if stable, or transferred to stable film, may be preserved in film vaults.

Though changes in media may be revolutionary in their impact they do not necessarily replace prior media. After their invention in the 19th century typewriters did not replace handwritten letters, and in the 20th century radio news did not replace newspapers, television did not replace radio, and the Internet has not replaced newspapers, though it has caused most of them to convert from print to electronic distribution. The Internet has also deprived newspapers of one of their greatest traditional sources of revenue: want ads, with the development of stand-alone websites, most prominently Craigslist. Even electronic books or ebooks have not replaced printed books, and email has not completely replaced sending letters on paper. Inevitably, over time most probably more information is lost than is preserved, but when a medium for information remains functional it may retain some users, and information in it may be preserved, no matter how antiquated it may be.

Until the Internet we would generally discuss various media separately, such as books, sound recording, films, television and radio. What has been most revolutionary about information and media in our time is the blending of traditional print media and electronic media on the Internet, allowing us to make VOIP telephone calls, send and receive emails, exchange text messages, watch high definition television, do video conferencing, stream films, share electronic files, etc.  For this we have no anticedents; the conversion so many different media to digital form transmissible over the Internet is a complete change. Here the cumulation of media has been collected into a totality that is completely new, and with the development of interactive social media on the Internet--another innovation-- we have seen the most profound impact upon our politics. Yet with all the blending of traditional media on the Internet the individual media, the histories of which are traced on HistoryofInformation, remain in existence, benefiting from new technologies, and reflecting the latest dimensions in the cumulative nature of media.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 21, 2020

Memory, Reading, Writing and Printing in the History of Information

The basic issues of information creation, distribution and storage have always been central to the history of information. Before writing existed information was stored in human memory and passed from generation to generation by the oral tradition. Later, after writing was invented, information was recorded on clay cuneiform tablets with a stylus, and carved into stone or written on wood or papyrus, and later vellum, and paper. With writing came reading and issues of literacy. Much later printing was invented in China, and about one thousand years later printing spread to the West. Each of these generalizations is the subject of Themes and multiple entries in HistoryofInformation

When my wife Trish and I were in China with members of The Grolier Club a few years ago we witnessed the hand printing of books from woodblocks, a process invented in China about 1800 years ago. Printing books by hand from woodblocks, when done by an experienced skilled worker, may not be that much slower than printing books on a hand press at 200 to 250 sheets per hour. This hand printing process from woodblocks is practiced as an art in China much like printing from metal type on a hand press is practiced in the West today.

As I think about these issues--memory, reading, writing, and printing--as means of information creation, distribution, and storage, I think it is worthwhile to recognize that they are as current today in the world of digital information as they were hundreds of years ago, with issues of the ever-growing demand for electronic memories, optical character recognition, AI analysis of images, humans reading on paper versus reading on screens, distribution on the web or through the mail, etc. If anything these topics are of greater concern because of the ever-increasing complexity and sophistication of computer systems and other technologies that incorporate them. As a generalization, it has been suggested that even as most information is digital today the amount of printing on paper may be as great or greater than ever because printing has taken on new roles, and expanded old ones. For example in 2019 the U.S. Bureau of the Census contracted with R. R. Donnelly & Sons in Chicago for the printing of 1.5 billion census forms. Another example is that in our 2020 presidential election it was decided that ballots had to be printed on paper, and voting needed to be done by manually marking ballots, rather than by electronic voting machines, in order to maintain election security against hacking. To me it was also notable that many of the presses used to print the tens of millions of paper ballots were high speed digital offset presses manufactured by the HP Indigo Division of HP, Inc., a computer company. Digital presses can print on substances that previously might not have been printable, and we should not forget the issue of 3D printing of objects that was only a pipe dream in the past, or the potential printing of living organs.

The persistance of the production of printed books, along with the continuing development of eBooks, remain topics of interest to book historians as the world of digital information expands. How long will printed books remain a mainstream product? As far as I know, many bestselling books still sell more copies in print than they do in electronic form. Though Crown publishers do not appear to provide specific documentation between print and ebooks for Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming, as of November 2020 the memoir had sold 14 million copies in 24 languages worldwide, of which more than eight million sales were in the U.S. and Canada. The Wikipedia article on the book implied that most of these were printed books. And when books are printed they are increasingly printed on digital presses. Prior to printing books on paper the writing, formating and pre-press, if any, are done by computer today. On the other hand, certain types of publications like encyclopedias are no longer issued on paper. 

A connection between books and computers in the very early history of computing may be a good example of the long interrelationship between computing and books. In the early nineteenth century computer pioneer Charles Babbage became interested in developing his Difference Engines as a way to correct errors in mathematical tables--particularly errors in the Nautical Almanac, a printed book that was an essential tool in navigation. The Nautical Almanac was computed by hand by human computers who were spread out all over England. By Babbage's time the Nautical Almanac was notorious for its errors. To prevent errors that crept into the Nautical Almanac Babbage designed Difference Engines to calculate the tables using the method of differences. He also incorporated his designs for his difference engines the means to print tables directly into stereotype plates so that no errors would be introduced into the tables by human typesetting errors. Babbage was so far ahead of his time with his conception, design, and partial construction of his Difference Engines, which represented tremendously expensive challenges in metal working and engineering at the time, that those machines were never completed during his lifetime. Ironically, the most widely available and widely used computing tool that Babbage ever developed was his often reprinted edition of Tables of Logarithms, the last edition of which was published in 1889.

The issue of accuracy in printed tables remained a dominant motivator in the eventual development of electronic computers. During World War II human computers working for the U.S. military were unable to calculate a sufficient number of printed firing tables for the multitude of different types of artillery used by the Army and Navy. To find solutions the U.S. Navy sponsored the development of the Harvard Mark I electro-mechanical machine, and about the same time the U.S. Army sponsored the development of the ENIAC electronic computer for the same purpose. The electromechanical Harvard Mark I was one hundred times the speed of a human calculator. Much more dramatically, the ENIAC, which used 18,000 vacuum tubes as switches, was 10,000 times the speed of a human computer. Decades earlier, prior to these large government-sponsored projects English computation pioneer Leslie J. Comrie figured out how to use commercial accounting machines as difference engines in order to improve the accuracy of the Nautical Almanac. However, the modest incremental increase in speed enabled by Comrie was simply not adequate to compute the vast number of complicated tables needed in World War II.

Both the Harvard Mark I and the ENIAC became operational toward the end of World War II. In 1945, probably in October, after the end of World War II, Aiken published Tables of the Modified Hankel Functions of Order One-Third and of their Derivatives. These tables, calculated by the Harvard Mark I, were the first published mathematical tables calculated by a programmed automatic computer, finally fulfilling the dream of Charles Babbagefirst expressed in 1822. Calculating these tables required the equivalent of forty-five days of computer processing time on the comparatively slow Mark I. Prior to the Mark I, calculating the tables would have required years of human computation. Those of us old enough to remember slide rules also remember how widely printed tables were used in science before inexpensive hand-held calculators became available.  Those many, and frequently heavy and bulky printed tables, the improvements to and developments of which were powerful motivators in the early history of the development of mechanical and electronic computing, were, ironically, among the main class of books, along with printed encyclopedias, that were made redundant by the development of pervasive electronic computing and the Internet. 

Jeremy M. Norman
November 22, 2020


Explanation of the Five (Now Seven) Subdivisions of the Book History Theme in HistoryofInformation

The Book History theme in HistoryofInformation is by far the largest. Before it was split up into five chronological subdivisions in November 2020 it had over 1000 entries and it could have had more, but for several years as I added to HistoryofInformation I had resisted indexing to that general theme, thinking that it had become excessively large. When I noticed the huge number of entries that had been indexed to that theme my assumption was that excessively large themes would create memory problems for our server, and eventually in 2020, after the addition of thousands of more images to the website, it appeared that memory issues from excessively large themes may have been contributing to server crashes. To fix those issues Vann Miller eventually modified the code.

When it was time to subdivide the Book History theme five discrete chronological periods quickly came to mind. Here was my reasoning behind the subdivisions:

Book History before 450 CE.  450 CE is a date sometimes associated with the end of classical civilization in the West, and the time that the Church gradually replaced the Roman state as the source of order and stability. Obviously this is not an exact date, and I could have chosen a later date, such as the death of Boethius in 524 or 525.

Book History from 450 to 999 CE. The choice of 999 was arbitrary; it is not an historically meaningful date except that it was the end of a millenium, and considering the large number of medieval entries in the database I wanted to subdivide all the entries from the thousand year span of the Middle Ages from roughly 450 to 1450. 

Book History from 1000 to 1451. This was the remaining span of the Middle Ages before Gutenberg invented printing by movable type.

Book History from 1452 to 1797. 1452 is the year associated with Gutenberg's first surviving examples of printing from movable type. This date is an estimate. 1797 is the year before Robert invented the papermaking machine--the first step in the mechanization of the components involved in book production.

Book History from 1798 to the Present. 1798 was the year in which Louis-Nicolas Robert invented the papermaking machine. This was the first step in the mechanization of book production, and from my perspective the beginning of the modern era for books. The next major step was the development of printing machines, followed by efforts at the mechanization of typesetting and type distribution. Bookbinding began to be mechanized with the Rolling Press invented by William Burn in 1827, followed by later machines for special bookbinding purposes. The history of the mechanization of bookbinding is the least well-documented of the major components of book production.

The first five subdivisions made good sense when I subdivided the Book History theme at the end of November 2020. But soon I found that I had indexed so many entries to the theme after 1798 that it remained very awkward to follow. By late December I decided to subdivide the 1798+ material  by periods of years, so we now have Book Historty 1798-1899, Book History 1900-1999, and Book History 2000 to the Present.

To focus your approach to any of the themes with large numbers of entries you may wish to use the Timeline slider on the left of the screen to narrow the date range down to the period of years in which you are interested.

Jeremy M. Norman
January 10, 2021

Assessing the Impact of Social Media, Especially After the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

It is generally understood that Social Media is a product of the Internet, and that one of the results of social media is the creation of echo chambers in which people share the same viewpoint, often uncritically. As a result, viewpoints– often extreme viewpoints– become reinforced by the recognition that they are widely shared within the social media group, and what is essentially gossip or even conspiracy theory, or deliberate misinformation with no factual basis, may be confused or preferred to fact-based views on similar topics. This interpretation has been provided as a factor in the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in which a presidential candidate, who always promoted conspiracy theories over facts, received over 70 million votes.

As is my habit, during and after the 2020 U.S. presidential election I searched for antecedents to social media and its use for promotion of conspiracy theories. In principal, since social media is a product of the Internet, one would assume that its history could not extend back more than a few years, especially since before the Internet most communication media were broadcast--one directional from the editorial source, such as newspapers, radio, and television. One of the most dramatic and innovative results of personal computers connected to the Internet was the development social and interactive media, in which the social media platform acts like a printing press and everyone on the platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, becomes a writer and publisher of free information without the intermediary of an editor or a fact-checker who might work for a traditional publisher.

But long before the Internet there was gossip, and many conspiracy theories and popular delusions spread like wildfire before electronic media. These popular delusions were documented as early as 1841 in a three-volume classic by Scottish poet, journalist, and song writer Charles Mackay in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. MacKay studied the popular delusions (similar socially to conspiracy theories, or misinformation) with respect to economic bubbles particularly, since in the 19th century when he wrote those were the primary manifestations of misinformation that could be recognized, especially since that term and the concept of government using lies for social/political influence was not yet coined. It was as late as 1923 that Joseph Stalin coined the term desinformatsiya as the name of a KGB black propaganda department. Stalin gave the department what he thought was French-sounding name in order to claim the name had a Western origin. What I think would be confirmed with good historical research is that the scale of these popular delusions has increased as media reach more and more people free of charge. It was undoubtedly not a coincidence that Orwell published the predictive distopian novel 1984  after he recognized the dominance of propaganda from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany over the people of those countries.

One of the most famous landmarks in the history of popular delusions amplified by radio was Orson Wells' 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." Wells may not have intended to deceive in the manner of propaganda, but his broadcast had that effect on many people, causing well-documented mass hysteria.

Prior to the French Revolution, in the 18th century Mesmerism became a social/political movement in France that some thought threatened the Ancien Regime. Mesmerism was "suggestion" or hypnosis amplified by social gatherings. Between 1777 and 1787 more books and pamphlets were published in France on Mesmerism (also called Animal Magnetism) than any other subject. The practice became socially fashionable, much like certain elements of social media today. One might say that Mesmerism would be one of the very best early examples of how bogus information, which was in this case essentially beign, captivated elements of society. By 1783 the Medical Faculty of Paris became so alarmed by the spread of Animal Magnetism, which they perceived as quackery, that they commissioned a report by a blue-ribbon committee of inquiry. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Michael Joseph Majault, Jean Sylvain Bailly, and Jean d'Arcet. Finding no evidence of the magnetic fluid that was promoted by Mesmer as responsible for Animal Magnetism, these scientists attributed the power of mesmerism to the “imagination” and so drove Mesmer from Paris. Lavoisier may have been the author of the report. English translation, London, 1785. I should also mention that driving Mesmer out of Paris did not put a stop to Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism. This was one more example of how facts have only limited influence on entrenched and socially reinforced belief.

In the 19th century hypnosis was studied scientifically and understood as a therapeutic technique in psychiatry, and even used as an anesthetic in surgery. Long after it came to the attention of physicians as a society fad supported by bogus theories from Mesmer, hypnotism was eventually put to scientific use in psychiatry and psychology. It is reasonable to theorize that social media echochambers on Facebook and Twitter may sometimes have an mass-hypnotic effect today.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 22, 2020

Speed as a Measure of Change in the History of Printing and Information Processing

These days with data traveling through fiber optic cables at the speed of light we may take processing speed for granted because current processing speeds are usually far beyond our perception, and probably also beyond our imagination. Instead they are statistics, to be compared with other statistics. Today we would typically not equate speed of data processing with speed of printing because they are different processes, but mainly because even when the fastest digital inkjet presses are employed, such as those used to print ballots in the 2020 presidential election, the speed of printing is so much slower than the information processing driving the press.

Printing, invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1455, should be considered one of the earliest technologies of information processing, and one of the first to accelerate the speed of book production. As far as I have been able to determine, the first report of the average speed of handpress printing was reported by Joseph Moxon in the second volume of his Mechanick Exercises (1684). This was the first true manual on printing in any language. In that work Moxon wrote of the "token", a measure of printing speed by which pressmen were then paid: 250 sheets per hour, printed on one side, by two pressmen. This speed, which in practicality may have been closer to 200 impressions per hour because of fatigue over a long workday, had not changed since Gutenberg had invented printing by movable type in the mid-15th century, and it did not change until Friedrich Koenig developed the first steam-powered platen press in 1810. Pressmen using Koenig's first mechanized press achieved a printing speed of 800 sheets per hour, more than three times the speed of handpress printing. This was the first significant advance in printing speed in over three centuries. We should also take note that the development of mechanized printing throughout the 19th century, with its steady significant increases in production speeds, did not replace handpress printing for the remainder of the 19th century. Hand presses made of iron continued to manufactured, and printers continued to use them. Larger printers had rooms where they operated machine presses or printing machines (machine rooms) and other rooms where they continued to operate handpresses (press rooms) for short editions.

How the speed of handpress printing may have compared to manuscript copying by hand in the 15th century is not a topic about which I have noticed any data. We may assume that the speed of handpress printing was well understood early on because it was used as a basis for compensation of pressmen. Far earlier than the 15th century scribes were paid by the line or by the page, and according to the quality of writing. For this we have documentation as early as 303 CE from the Edict on Prices by the Emperor Diocletian. "For one hundred lines in 'scriptura optima', twenty-five denarii; for somewhat lesser script, twenty denarii, and for functional script ('scriptura libelii bel tabularum'), ten denarii." The unit of valuation was the normal length of line in a verse of Virgil [Vergil]. Thus compensation for writing on papyrus rolls was correlated with writing speed since it would have taken more time to write scriptura optima than scriptura libelii, though actual speed would also have varied with the writing speed of individual scribes. Bearing writing speed in mind, I think it is reasonable to assume that handpress printing may have been around one hundred times the speed of quality hand copying in manuscript book production in codex form. This may be about as accurate as we can estimate the differential between quality manuscript copying and handpress printing. Considering how slow handcraft processes were in the Middle Ages, an increase of speed by around one hundred fold must have been perceived as truly dramatic at the time. How much the speed increment mattered to book producers is unclear, especially if they were paying by the "token," rather than by the hour, but we do have records of the appreciation of cost savings in printed books over manuscript copies. One of the earliest records of this occurred in 1468 when humanist Giovanni Andrea Bussi (Joannes Andreae de Bussis), bishop of Aléria, and the chief editor for the printing house of Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz after it moved from Subiaco to Rome, wrote to Pope Paul II: "In our time God gave Christendom a gift which enables even the pauper to acquire books. Prices of books have decreased by eighty percent" (Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading 1450-1550 [1967] 1).

I have not taken the time to study and compile statistics on the speed of mechanical calculating devices or abacus (soroban) versus the speed of manual or mental computation in the centuries prior to electronic computing; however, I presume that some statistics may exist. Once again, the speed of computation using any mechanical device would have depended both on the advantages that the specific device may haved provided and the speed of the human using the device. There was also a famous competition in 1946 between a Japanese soroban operator and an American electric calculator operator in which the soroban operator won. This showed that the right operator of an ancient calculating device could beat a skilled operator of a newer calculating device, but we could not generalize from a single competition.

Among the earliest statistics about calculating speed in the history of electronic computing is the comparison between the electromechanical Harvard Mark 1 machine that used relays as switches, and the ENIAC that used 18,000 vacuum tubes as switches. The Harvard Mark 1, which became operational in 1944, performed calculations at one hundred times the speed of a human computer, while the electronic ENIAC, which became operational in 1945, performed calculations at 10,000 times the speed of a human computer. This thousand times increase in speed using electronic rather than electromechanical switches immediately made clear to all involved that the future of computing would be electronic, and demonstrated that electronic computing far exceeded the capacity of the fastest human computers. Within a short time the fear that the new machines built by man would replace people came to the fore, and people like neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson wrote reassuringly about the differences between computers and the human brain.

Even though the earliest electronic computers, such as the ENIAC or UNIVAC, were very significantly faster than people, their printed output was very slow compared to the speed of the information processing by electronic computer. The first electronic computers output data on punched cards. Or, if they used a printer, it was through a terminal like a teletype which output between 60 and 100 words per minute. Assuming 250 words per page, this speed would, ironically, have been equivalent to handpress printing, but quality of teletype was totally inferior printing on a handpress. Over time the speed of computer printers and their print quality gradually increased to speeds like 20,000 "impressions" or copies per hour on an industrial size digital inkjet press, but their high quality output remained far slower than the information processing that controled them. At 20,000 impressions per hour, roughly 1000 times the spreed of handpress printing, we can still watch the copies moving through the digital press while the electronic information processing done by the computers driving the press remains so far beyond our sense perception.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 30, 2020

The Persistance of Handpress Printing, and the Concentration of Scholarly Research and Collecting on Books and Printing Produced on the Handpress

Most books on the history of printing and college courses on the history of printing concentrate on handpress printing. As extensively documented in HistoryofInformation, handpress printing has a long history, from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, persisting today in a world dominated by offset and digital printing as an art form pursued by hobbyists and by teachers in courses on the history of print media in schools that own handpress printing equipment. Indeed manufacture and use of the iron handpress continued through the 19th century long after the development of printing machines beginning in 1810. When he founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, in reaction to the development of mass media printed on printing machines, William Morris had no problem purchasing a London-built iron Hopkinson & Cope Improved Albion Press (No. 6551) built that very year. Throughout the 19th century it was typical of large scale printers such as William Clowes in London to operate machine rooms in which they employed machine managers to run printing machines typically powered by steam engines, and press rooms in which they employed traditional pressmen to print on handpresses. Very gradually large scale book printers eliminated their hand presses, or kept one around for proofing or the occasional printing of a few copies of a broadside or announcement.

With the development of printing machines that speeded up production, by the 1830s in England and America, and increasingly throughout Europe and more gradually throughout the rest of the world, far more copies of newspapers and books were printed on printing machines powered by steam engines than could ever have been issued by handpress printing. One result of the implementation of mechanized presses is that from about 1830 onward there are more surviving printed works of all kinds printed by printing machines than those printed on a handpress. But in spite of this, the focus of scholars and students of the history of printing, and the focus of collectors of the history of printing, tends to be on the technology of handpress printing rather than on the development and technology of printing machines. Similarly there is more scholarly concentration on printing technologies involved with handpress productions, such as  hand papermaking, manual typesetting, and hand bookbinding rather than the development of machine-made paper, typesetting machinery and bookbindings produced by machinery. From the aesthetic point of view some might argue that the quality of books printed on a handpress on handmade paper and handbound is often superior aesthetically to machine-made books. And no one would argue that deluxe handprinted editions have qualities that cannot be exactly duplicated by mass production. Instead mass produced books have a different aesthetic. If mass production caused a loss of handcrafted quality it provided very significant advantages in affordability and the ability to distribute information to increasingly wider audiences. Inevitably mass production also produced, and continues to produce, some publications of exceptional aesthetic quality. The development of mass production of printed matter is a topic that I trace in the theme Book Production in the Industrial Revolution: Origins of Mass Media.

The long-standing concentration on scholarship on printing in the handpress period and its products, and the comparative neglect of the history of mechanized book production and its history, is beginning to change as a result of the development of personal computers, the Internet, and eBooks. If my experience and interests are any example, our constant use of computers and software in our daily life, and the rapid changes in the development of media as a result of the Internet, may cause those of us interested in the history of media to approach the history of printing and book production from the viewpoint of the more complex technology of today's world rather than the comparatively simple technology of printing before the development of printing machines. By the time I began studying and collecting the development of mechanized mass-produced books around ten years ago, I was steeped in the handpress period. That had been the area of my focus since I first read Sigfrid Steinberg's Five Hundred Years of Printing in the 1960s, but as I developed HistoryofInformation as a database on the history of media from the earliest period to the present I recognized that there were so many significant developments in book production from the Industrial Revolution onward, and that some of these developments could be documented, and collected as well. To me, the invention of the papermaking machine and the steam-powered press, and the early development of mechanized book production, are as significant for the history of books and printing as the early history of handpress printing in the 15th century.

When I began studying and collecting the development of mechanized book production I found that there were few models on which to base a collection. Primarily the collection had to be pieced together from various references in portions of the history that had been studied by historians, but many of its elements were what turned up when searching for relevant material. As I developed the collection I began posting selected items in the Book Production in the Industrial Revolution theme in HistoryofInformation. Readers who are interested in this topic may view examples of the history that I have posted so far by accessing that theme. Frequently when I describe an item I cite the relevant scholarly reference on the item if I am aware of such scholarship. One of the major issues in collecting the early history of mechanized book production is that publications issued using printing machines were generally not identified as such. This is especially true of publications typeset on the many experimental mechanical typesetting machines developed in the 19th century, and it is nearly always true of bookbindings made using various bookbinding machines in the 19th century. Like many topics in the history of books and media, the early history of mechanized printing and the books and printed matter produced by machinery remains a mostly unexplored field of study.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 1, 2020

Optimization of Memory and Information Retrieval in Humans and Libraries

For many years I have been interested in the history of mnemonics, as reflected in the Memory /Mnemonics / Data Storage theme in HistoryofInformation. For centuries the primary goal of mnemonics was to enhance human memory and to optimize its utility through the teaching and practice of mnemonic techniques. These techniques, such as the "method of loci" or "memory palace," were described in the most famous ancient Roman treatise on rhetoric, persuasion and mnemonics entitled Rhetorica ad Herennium, a treatise that evolved when books (papyrus rolls) and written records were expensive and scarce to a degree that would be unimaginable today. Partly as a result of the scarcity of books, but also because of low rates of education an literacy in ancient Roman society, the universe of knowledge in the ancient world was vastly more limited than today. During the ancient world and the Middle Ages it was possible for certain scholars to memorize much more of the totality what they might be expected to know than we would expect. Besides memorization or regurgitation of random details, the purpose of a memory palace, or some other system of mnemonics, then as well as now, is to enable to practitioner to retrieve the specific information they are searching for in memory when they need it.

Memory can be viewed as an individual issue—what one person can memorize or record, or it can viewed as a collective concept, the records of a group or a society, or even possibly the world. When memory is thought of as a collective concept it is frequently in the context of libraries as preserving knowledge of a culture, or in a wider sense of world heritage. As early as 1784 the architect Etienne-Louis Boullée envisaged a library with a huge reading room that could contain the entire "Memory of the World." Prior to writing this essay I had compiled notes in HistoryofInformation about several other universal library schemes- more or less detailed - authored by Gabriel Naudé, Kurt Lasswitz, and Jorge Luis Borges. In 1627 Naudé in Paris expressed a goal of creating a public "universal library" in his book entitled Avis pour dresser une bibliothèque. In 1901 German scientist, philosopher and science fiction writer Kurt Lasswitz at Gotha, Germany published a story entitled Die Universalbibliothek (The Universal Library) describing a library which was universal in the sense that it not only contained all existing written works, but all possible written works. In 1939 Argentine writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires published an essay entitled La bibliotheca total (The Total Library), describing his fantasy of an all-encompassing archive or universal library. In Borges' work this universal library was created, remarkably, by an abstract device that produced a random sequence of letters and symbols, ad infinitum. Those several fictional or aspirational schemes may have prepared the imagination of commentators who recognized the potential of the Internet to serve as a "universal library." 

Just as the value of memorizing or learning is in the ability to retrieve and apply appropriate knowledge in an appropriate circumstance, intellectual or practical, the usefulness of any library is entirely dependent upon how well it is organized and catalogued. In this respect a library catalogue enables a user of a library to conduct research analogous to an individual's referencing a personal memory palace, but on an enormously amplified scale, far beyond the capability of anyone, or even a whole society, to remember. Instead the library functions as an vast artificial memory, but a memory that must be searched, explored, sampled, absorbed, and shared. HistoryofInformation describes the history of library catalogues, beginning with the known catalogues of various medieval institutional libraries, the largest of which was the library of the Sorbonne, the earliest catalogue of which dates to the 14th century, and the first efforts in the 16th century, after printing enabled the expansion and distribution of the world of knowledge, by Conrad Gessner in his printed book entitled Bibliotheca universalis (1545-1555). The challenge of bringing order to libraries to make them accessible to users, resulted in many analog solutions over the centuries, culminating in vast multi-volume printed catalogues, the largest of which was the British Museum Catalogue, that ultimately expanded to 283 printed folio volumes. Huge printed catalogues like that, and even much larger stationary card catalogues that used to fill large halls in large libraries, were so time-consuming to consult that in 1949, before any electronic computer was available, since none had yet been manufactured for sale, Sanford Larkey began planning to automate information retrieval at the Army Medical Library, as the National Library of Medicine was then designated. This was the earliest project in electronic information retrieval anywhere, and the foundation, among many other things, of the enormous online databases produced decades later by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, including Medline, that are presently accessed by tens of millions of people around the world each day.

Whether or not they perceive the Internet as a universal library, Internet search engines, such as Google or Baidu, were originally modeled upon library information retrieval projects, such as those that originated at the Army Medical Library, but, of course, they base their searches on algorithms far more complex than an actual library searches, since they are searching a virtually infinite variety of information sources far more diverse than whatever media an actual library might contain. From my perspective the greatest advantages these search engines offer is their ability to pinpoint information in the most minutely specific way, searching through what we perceive to be a virtually infinite amount of data. In this respect they are incalculably superior in their information retrieval ability to any human memory, individual or collective. Nevertheless, at the present time to formulate a search through Google or Baidu we still need a search idea produced by our human brain, and sometimes it even takes human skill in designing the search to obtain appropriate results. In parallel with their evolving search engine algorithms, Google and Baidu sponsor extensive research in artificial intelligence. Will the artificial intelligence being developed by these search engines eventually anticipate our search requests before we think of them ourselves?

Jeremy M. Norman
December 2, 2020

Examples of the Cultural Prominence of Handpress and Mechanized Printing in the Nineteenth Century

In the early 19th century, before the invention of telephone, radio, and television, when the only computers were people, and the only faster method of communication over long distance was by telegraph, other than by gossip or by letter, or by actual education in a school, the medium for the transfer of information available to most people was print. As printed mass media developed, and costs of inexpensive printed media declined, the demand for inexpensive newspapers and magazines, and for inexpensive books and pamphlets, was mainly restricted by the limited numbers of most populations who could read. One of my goals in HistoryofInformation remains documenting the transition from book and newspaper production as essentially a handcraft before 1800 to the development of mass media with the spread of comparatively inexpensive printed matter produced by people operating machinery, generally at lower cost. Along with the technologies to produce less expensive printed matter, and the development of railroads to deliver them faster and over longer distances, reducing the cost of printed matter also contributed to the spread of literacy. It is generally understood that the mechanization of papermaking, the development of printing machines, and bookbinding machines, and eventually the successful mechanization of typesetting, would not have occurred without a concommitant growth of literacy to increase the market for larger editions produced at lower cost. Each of these factors—transportation, education and literacy, as well as telecommunications, is traced with a Theme in HistoryofInformation, and the interrelationships between them, and the amount of documentation on this website in perhaps a thousand entries or more, would suggest that the full story of these factors during the nineteenth century would necessarily be the subject of long books rather than this very short essay.

Instead what I would like to draw attention to here is the surprising amount of printed media coverage that I am finding about the development of the mechanization of elements of printing and book production within print media itself. Most probably one should not be surprised by this. When print media was essentially the only medium for communication besides letters and gossip, it is not surprising that writers would discuss new developments in printing and book production much as various media discuss new developments in computing and the Internet today. What has surprised me, I guess, is the frequent recognition of the technological and social implications of the new mass media by writers on the topic from virtually the beginning of the advances in printing and book production resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the Book Production in the Industrial Revolution theme in HistoryofInformation I cite and usually quote examples of this. The tautology here is that without this recognition of novelty stated within most of these publications themselves we might not know of the particular landmark reflected in some of those publications. Obvious examples are minor publications like the first book printed from stereotype plates made in America. This very minor book, The Larger Catechism Agreed Upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (New York, 1813) brags on its title page that it was "The first book ever stereotyped in America." Nine years earlier, printer Andrew Wilson's edition of the translation of Freylinghausen's An Abstract of the Whole Doctrine of the Christian Religion (London, 1804) advertised on its title page that it was "The first book stereotyped by the new process." In that case, Wilson, who worked for Lord Stanhope, the inventor of the "new process" of stereotyping, issued the book in the first step of a publishing program to promote the new process of stereotyping. What Wilson did not say was that the book was also the first book printed on Lord Stanhope's revolutionary new iron handpress, and also that the book was the first book printed on machine-made paper. Wilson and Stanhope may have selected this relatively obscure title for their first venture because, as reported later, "the translator was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, and the editor of the volume was Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London. The Rev. Philip Bliss states that he had seen the original MS. in Her Majesty's handwriting." By 1829, if not earlier, the London publisher and writer Charles Knight, in association with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, was exploiting the new printing technology to produce larger editions of cheaper quality publications, culminating in the launch of The Penny Magazine on March 31, 1832. This was the first successful large circulation magazine, with a circulation for a period of time as high as 200,000 copies per week. Knight was a great proselytizer of the new book production technology and publisher of low quality cheaper publications, but he issued more expensive publications as well.

Besides early examples like this, or examples in newspapers or periodicals that I have documented in HistoryofInformation, a few examples stand out as illustrations of the cultural prominence of printing in the 19th century. One is the sheer number of publications from a wide variety of cities issued to commemorate the Quatercentenary of Gutenberg in 1840. Colin Clair tabulated 143 memorial volumes; however, I would not be surprised if the actual number of publications was higher. The commemorations included parades of printers as in Stuttgart, in which a simplified model of Gutenberg's press was pulled by a team of horses. Other examples include public demonstrations of printing from presses pulled by horses during processions. Processions of that nature occurred in Boston in 1856 and in New York in 1858. The handpress and printing machine pulled by a powerful team of horses on a car in New York as part of a parade honoring the completion of the Atlantic Cable, was illustrated in Frank Lesle's Illustrated Newspaper. Besides these, demonstrations of advanced mechanized presses were often exhibited in public exhibitions. A prominent example of this were the sheets of the Illustrated London News printed on Augustus Applegath's Vertical Printing Machine at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Another example was the Caxton Celebration held in London in 1877 to commemorate the introduction of printing in England. This was probably the largest exhibition on the history of printing ever held, and the variety of publications issued to commemorate it was remarkable, culminating in the Caxton Memorial Bible printed and bound within only 12 hours as an example of the enormous progress made in printing technology during the 19th century.

When time permits I intend to cite more examples here of the examples of the cultural prominence of handpress and mechanized printing and book production in the 19th century.  Many others are already recorded in HistoryofInformation.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 3, 2020

By Hand or By Machine: Among the Most Basic Distinctions in HistoryofInformation

In December 2020, having developed HistoryofInformation for roughly twenty years, it occurred to me that one of the most basic concepts in the collection of data that I have written and assembled is the transition in various industries—especially industries having to do with printing and book production—from handcraft to mechanization. As I have researched and collected material around the history of printing, typography, papermaking, and bookbinding, I have become particularly interested in collecting the development of mechanization in all these fields. One of the reasons for focusing on these aspects is that I have always been interested in the history of technology as well as the history of books. Another reason is that the mechanization of these fields represented a second revolution in the history of printing and book production as significant historically as the invention of printing in the mid-15th century. A third reason is that I have found these fields to be fertile areas for collecting and research. Collecting is a serendipitous activity, depending as much on what is available as on what one can afford. Most of the items that I write about in many themes in HistoryofInformation are not available; most are unique items preserved in institutions, or extremely valuable items that would exceed the budget of all but the richest; however, the beginning of industrialization of book production and its development has turned out to be a neglected field that lacks the prestige or general interest of the handcrafted book, printed by a handpress from handset type or handmade paper and bound by hand. Elements of the early mechanization of aspects of book production have therefore been not only available but often reasonably priced, and because these aspects tend to be far less studied than the book as handcraft, many of the items that I find when collecting these aspects are little-known and worthy of writing about online.

As I thought about what I had documented in HistoryofInformation over the past twenty years I decided yesterday to divide up the Printing, Papermaking, Typography, and Bookbinding themes into "by hand" and "by machine." For printing this was easy to do logically since there was a clear, hard distinction between printing on a hand press and using a printing machine, whether the machine was powered by a man turning a hand crank, a foot pedal, a horse or an ox, or a steam engine. What has proven more difficult is collecting examples of printing done by the multitude of distinctive printing machines developed in the 19th century, since most printed material did not specify the type of press on which it was printed. However, some examples did provide this information, and whenever possible I have tried to acquire them.

For papermaking the distinction between handmade and machine-made was even clearer. Before Robert invented the papermaking machine (better known by its later iterations as the Fourdrinier machine) all paper was made by hand with the assistance of a few basic machines, mainly the Hollander beater. In terms of collecting, the early history of machine-made paper, there has long been a tendency of deluxe publications to emphasize that they were printed on handmade paper; however, few early publications mentioned that they were printed on machine-made paper. This has made identifying and collecting landmarks in the history of machine-made paper an interesting challenge.

For typography in the days of lead type, there was a clear distinction between typesetting by hand or and the many early and mostly unsuccessful methods of typesetting and distributing type by machine. As clear as that distinction was, printers or typesetters rarely indicated that they were using a typesetting machine, so identifying and collecting examples of printing typeset by the many different 19th century typesetting machines has been another challenge.

Only in the history of bookbinding was there less of a clear distinction between hand bookbinding and mechanized bookbinding, as even when the first bookbinding machines such as the stamping press were developed in the 1830s bookbinding remained a combination of handcraft and machine applications until the full process of mechanizing the binding of commercial books, including the adoption of capable machines for sewing printed signatures with thread, evolved at the end of the 19th century, and into the 20th century. As I write this at the end of December 2020, there are still many gaps to fill in for the development of industrialization of all aspects of book production;  I am optimistic that a good number of those gaps will eventually be filled.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 20, 2020

Knowledge is Power: Education and Political Power for the Masses during the Industrial Revolution

Of course I had previously heard the expression, "knowledge is power," but my first experience with it in the context of HistoryofInformation was writing about the Mechanic's Magazine founded on August 30, 1823 one month after George Birkbeck founded the Mechanic's Institution or Mechanic's Institute, an organization designed to help working men obtain an education while working. On the frontispiece of the first volume of the magazine we see the motto, "knowledge is power," under which we see the emblems of a different kind of power, the steam engine and the steamship--prominent examples of the successful mechanical applications of energy that were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.

Later I found the same motto on the wall of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge's Greenwich lecture hall. One could easily appreciate how the SDUK and the Mechanic's Institution, founded by the same people, or certainly by people who knew one another, would share the same educational goals, and use the model to encourage working class people to advance themselves through education. However, from the clothing of the people depicted in the audience at the opening of the SDUK lecture hall in Greenwich we can see that not all were members of the working class. Though the original goal of the SDUK was to educate the working class, it turned out that some of their audience was actually the middle class, and some of SDUK's publications were too expensive for the working class market, notably the Gallery of Portraits and Memoirs on which the SDUK and Charles Knight embarked on in 1832, at the cost of one guinea per volume for a seven volume set, was far above the purchasing power of members of the working class. Like most of Charles Knight's publications, the Gallery of Portraits was issued in parts to make it more easily affordable, but the set, printed on higher quality paper than the SDUK usually used, was somewhat of a luxury publication. Probably members of the English and American middle class, who already had some education, found it easier than members of the working class to appreciate that "knowledge is power," and that further education would help them advance further in society. Recognizing this, the SDUK appealed to the dual market of the haves and the upwardly mobile have-nots.

Having learned about the Mechanic's Institution and the SDUK I was, to a certain extent, surprised to see that that the motto, "knowledge is power," was also adopted by the radical printer and publisher Henry Hetherington. Hetherington combined "Knowledge is power" with his other main cause, "liberty of the press." To radicals like Hetherington the kind of power associated with knowledge was political power rather than just intellectual or economic advancement. Some of Hetherington's radicalism was undoubtedly supported by the revolutionary forces at work on the continent of Europe--especially the July Revolution that took place in France.

I had long ago heard or read that "knowledge is power," was an expression originated by Francis Bacon, and I had noticed what appeared to be a bust of Bacon on the back wall of the Greenwich lecture hall of the SDUK as depicted in the print that I had collected and had written about in HistoryofInformation. Before I sat down to write this essay on Christmas Day 2020, I thought I would confirm the attribution of the expression to Bacon. Not surprisingly there was a Wikipedia article on just this specific expression, but in the original Latin, Scientia potentia est. From that I learned that Bacon's version of the expression was a little different, and that the Latin expression, scientia potentia est, was originally published by Thomas Hobbes in the Latin edition of Leviathan (1668). The person depicted above the expression in on the wall behind the speaker in SDUK's lecture hall could just as well have been Hobbes as Bacon.

My positive view of the expression, "knowledge is power," derived from its applications in the Industrial Revolution, was somewhat muted when I learned that the expression had been much more recently adopted by the fortunately short-lived "Information Awareness Office" established by the U.S. government as part of a presumably misguided surveillance state project between 2002 and 2003. Though government's ostensible purpose may be protecting national security, government surveillance projects, it would seem, run the risk of repressing the power of the people by using information gained through surveillance to impose government power. I am pleased that the Information Awareness Office was closed after only one year of existence, but not pleased that some of the surveillance projects continued, just under different names. While it is too much to expect the government to refrain from electronic surveillance, hopefully, it will not reuse the motto "knowledge is power," associated so long with supporting human advancement, to promote surveillance.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 25, 2020

How the Virtual Library, HistoryofInformation, Could be a Model for the Curated Presentation of Small Libraries of Almost Any Kind

During the twenty plus years in which I have been collecting, writing, and developing HistoryofInformation I often wondered what the project was becoming. As I wrote in my essay Presenting a Different Style of Timelinesthe project began as an effort to compare the current transition from primarily print to primarily digital information with the transition that occurred in the mid-15th century from manuscript copying to print, and from there,—driven by passion more than a plan— it gradually morphed in various directions until, with the collaboration of web developer Vann Miller, in February 2021 it is finally achieving most of what I would like to accomplish in its functionality and performance, though, of course, I will never be fully satisfied with its content.

In reflecting upon the project as it now stands, and asking myself how I should characterize this project, it occurred to me fairly recently that HistoryofInformation may be viewed an extensively curated virtual library on a variety of interrelated topics presented in a very flexible way. The history of information involves such a broad range of subjects that it was always my intention to present the data in ways that the user could customize to their own purposes or points of view. What I brought to the project was a desire to collect and explore the histories of these topics, and to present them from my perspective as it has evolved during the duration of this project. Throughout my experience of writing, collecting, and presenting this data I have appreciated the flexibility that the database and timeline formats have allowed, both in the writing and presentation, since in view of the panoramic scope of this project, I could not have produced it any other way.

In creating HistoryofInformation I have visited and sometimes linked to thousands of websites around the world, including many digital libraries. Most digital libraries are far too enormous, with hundreds of thousands or millions of titles, to be curated at the level presented in HistoryofInformation. However, now that Historyof Information has reached the current stage of development, I believe that the HistoryofInformation model would be applicable to a wide variety of institutional special collections of a manageable size, or privately collected libraries that desire a flexible curated public web presentation. With that in mind I would be available for consultation concerning conception and methodology should anyone wish to consider undertaking such a project.

Jeremy M. Norman
February 22, 2021

Has HistoryofInformation Evolved into a Virtual Museum?

As mentioned in a previous essay, I began this project around twenty years ago to attempt to show how the present transition in media, that began with the invention of electronic computing about 1945, from primarily print to primarily digital today, may be compared to the transition from manuscript to print that occurred in the mid-15th century. When the personal computer and the Internet first began to impact society as a whole in the 1990s I think making the comparison was a somewhat novel idea, if historical views may be considered novel. Decades later, thinking about these two different transitions in the most general terms, we can say that there are definite similarities and also differences. In the 15th century the transition occurred from oral and manuscript culture to oral, manuscript, and print culture, while in the mid 20th century century the transition occurred from oral, manuscript, print, and analog radio and television and film to the present combination of oral, manuscript, print, and an increasingly digital expression of all media such as print, film, and radio while the analog versions have been retained to a certain limited degree, such as analog long-playing records, and analog amplifiers. Another similarity is that both the mid-15th century and the mid-20th century transitions required about fifty years to occur even though the 20th century is always thought of as advancing far faster than the 15th century.

Given that HistoryofInformation presents the evidence to show the similarities in media transitions and their differences, how much does this really matter? Having thought about this issue for more than twenty years, my conclusion in 2021 is that probably the comparison is a useful historical and educational exercise, but what the comparison primarily demonstrates is the cumulative nature of media. That cumulative nature, in which older forms of media are not entirely replaced by the newer dominant forms, is probably the main conclusion that may be drawn from HistoryofInformation, if one is looking for some kind of overriding historical generalization.

Though I began the HistoryofInformation project to support or deny a generalization, my primary conclusion from all this research is that the details and examples of these very complex subjects tend to be more interesting than the generalizations. As a very diverse collection of historical details and examples built around various themes and concepts, I think HistoryofInformation may be viewed as a kind of virtual museum of information and media designed for users to find details and examples related to their particular interests. Do you agree?


Jeremy M. Norman
April 8, 2021