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History of Books

"The current information revolution is actually the fourth information revolution in human history. The first one was the invention of writing 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia; then -- independently but several thousand years later -- in China; and some 1,500 years later still, by the Maya in Central America.

"The second information revolution was brought on by the invention of the written book, first in China, perhaps as early as 1,300 BC, and then, independently, 800 years later, in Greece, when Peisistratos, the tyrant of Athens, had Homer's epics -- only recited [orally] until then -- copied into books.

"The third information revolution was set off by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and of movable type between 1450 and 1455, and by the contemporaneous invention of engraving. We have almost no documents on the first two of these revolutions, though we know that the impact of the written book was enormous in Greece and Rome as well as in China. In fact, China's entire civilization and system of government still rest on it. But on the third information revolution, printing and engraving, we have abundant material. Is there anything we can learn today from what happened 500 years ago?

"The first thing to learn is a little humility.

"Everybody today believes that the present information revolution is unprecedented in reducing the cost of, and in the spreading of, information -- whether measured by the cost of a "byte" or by computer ownership -- and in the speed and sweep of its impact. These beliefs are simply nonsense.

"At the time Gutenberg invented the press, there was a substantial information industry in Europe. It was probably Europe's biggest employer. It consisted largely of thousands of monasteries, many of which housed hundreds of highly skilled monks. Each monk labored from dawn to dusk, six days a week, copying books by hand. An industrious, well-trained monk could do 4 pages a day, or 25 pages during a six-day week, for an annual ouput of 1,200 to 1,300 handwritten pages" (Drucker 54).

"Fifty years later, by 1500, the monks had become unemployed. These monks (some estimates go well above 10,000 for all of Europe) had been replaced by a very small number of lay craftsmen, the newly minted class of "printers," totalling perhaps 1,000, but spread over all of Europe (though only beginning to establish themselves in Scandinavia). To produce a printed book required coordinated teamwork by up to 20 such craftsmen, beginning with one highly skilled cutter of type, to a much larger number, maybe 10 or more, of much less skilled book-binders. Such a team produced each year about 25 titles, with an average of 200 pages per title, or 5,000 pages ready to be printed. By 1505, print runs of 500 copies were becoming increasingly common. This mean that a printing team could produce annually 25 MILLION printed pages, bound into 125,000 books ready to be sold -- or 2.5 million pages per team member as against the 1,200 or 1,300 the individual monk had produced only 50 years earlier.

"Prices fell dramatically. As late as the mid-1400s -- as late as Gutenberg's invention, in other words -- books were such a luxury that only the wealthy and educated could afford them. But when Martin Luther's German Bible came out in 1522 (a book of well over 1,000 pages), its price was so low that even the poorest peasant family could buy one.

"The cost and price reductions of the third information revolution were at least as great as those of the present, the fourth information revolution. And so were the speed and the extent of its spread..." (Drucker 56).

"Just as important as the reduction in costs and the distribution speed of the new printing technology was its impact on what information meant. The first printed books, beginning with Gutenberg's Bible, were in Latin and still had the same topics as the books that the monks had earlier written out by hand: religious and philosophical treatises and whatever texts had survived from Latin antiquity. But only 20 years after Gutenberg's invention, books by contemporary authors began to emerge, though they still appeared in Latin. Another 10 years and books were being printed not only in Greek and Hebrew but also, increasingly, in the vernacular (first in English, then in the other European tongues). And in 1476, only 30 years after Gutenberg, the English printer William Caxton (1422-1491) published a book on so worldly a subject as chess. By 1500, popular literature no longer meant verse -- epics, especially -- which lent themselves to oral transmission, but prose, i.e., the printed book.

"In no time at all, the printing revolution also changed institutions, including the educational system. In the decades that followed, university after university was founded throughout Europe, but unlike the earlier ones, they weren't designed for the clergy or for the study of theology. They were built around disciplines for the laity: law, medicine, mathematics, natural philosophy (science)" (Drucker 56).

"Printing's greatest impact, however, was on the core of pre-Gutenberg Europe: the church. Printing made the Protestant Reformation possible. Its predecessors, the reformation of John Wycliffe in England (1330-1384) and of John Huss in Bohemia (1372-1415), had met with an equally enthusiastic popular response. But those revolts could not travel farther or faster than the spoken word and could thus be localized and suppressed. This was not the case when Luther, on October 31, 1517, nailed his 95 theses to a church door in an obscure German town. He had intended only to initiate a traditional theological debate within the church. But without Luther's consent (and probably without his knowledge), the theses were immediately printed and distributed gratis all over Germany, and then all over Europe. These printed leaflets ignited the religious firestorm that turned into the Reformation" (Drucker 56-58).

"Would there have been an age of discovery, beginning in the second half of the 15th century, without movable type? Printing publicized every single advance the Portuguese seafarers made along the west coast of Africa in their search for a sea route to the Indies. Printing provided Columbus with the first (though totally wrong) maps of the fabled lands beyond the western horizon, such as Marco Polo's China and the legendary Japan. Printing made it possible to record the results of every single voyage immediately and create new, more reliable maps..." (58).

"The printing revolution immediately created a new and unprecedented class of information technologists... The IT people of the printing revolution were the early printers... they flourished throughout Europe.. and had become great stars.. These virtuosi of the printing press were known and revered all over Europe, just as the names of the leading computer and software firms are recognized and admired worldwide today. Printers were courted by kings, princes, the pope, and rich merchant cities and were showered with money and honors.

"The first of these printing tycoons was the famous Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449-1515). He realized that the new printing press could make a large number of impressions from the same plate -- 1,000 by the year 1515. Thus he created the first low-cost, mass-produced book. Aldus Manutius created the printing industry: He was the first to extend printing to languages other than Latin and also the first to do books by contemporary authors. Altogether his press turned out well over 1,000 titles.

"The last of these great printing technologists, and also the last of the printing princes, was Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) of Antwerp. Starting as a humble apprentice binder, he built Europe's biggest and most famous printing firm. By marrying the two new technologies, printing and engraving, he created the modern illustrated book. He became Antwerp's leading patrician (Antwerp was then one of the richest cities in Europe, if not the world), and he became so wealthy that he was able to build bimself a magnificent palace.." (Drucker 58).


NEXT: History of Libraries


Works Cited

Drucker, Peter F. "The Next Information Revolution." Forbes (August 24, 1998): 47-58.


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