From Handwriting to Letterpress: The “Information Revolution” and the Written Word

Printing, painstaking though it may seem to our modern perceptions, allowed for massive changes in the dissemination of information. Gutenberg’s invention enabled the increased flow of information, but printing also allowed for accuracy of information to be assured, as well. Due to its ability to be reproduced in such massive amounts, the appearance of printed word is key. Through the selection of fonts, papers, and ink colors, the character of a written tract is determined.

An interesting point in the evolution of the printed word was its ability to transform the many vagaries of handwriting into uniform, standardized fonts and letters. The artistry required to generate these fonts must have been massive. In our class project, my assigned font was Bembo in 12 point. In research for this blog post, I was amazed at the information available on this single font: its history traces back to 1495 and is named after Pietro Bembo, a famed 16th century Venetian poet and literary theorist.

Through working hands-on with this type, and the intricate processes associated with letterpress printing, I was amazed at the sheer amount of labor it takes to produce the smallest piece of text. It took several hours of setting type, placing it into position, printing, adjusting, and printing again, to produce any kind of final product. When comparing this form, however, to antiquated styles of handwriting and calligraphy, however, one understands how printing is such a revolutionary form of information exchange. It is a very front-heavy form of text creation: once the groundwork has been set, hundreds of copies of a text can be generated with relative ease. I learned this when creating my own text; despite the many hours it took to create the correct alignment of type, the prints themselves were printed in less than half an hour. Compared to hand-copying each line of text, the speed at which written word can be generated with the aid of a press is truly fantastic.

"Bamboo 12 point" lead type, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

“Bembo 12 point” lead type, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

Globe Poster-themed information and guidelines on the walls of the printing studio, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

Globe Poster-themed information and guidelines on the walls of the printing studio, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

Sounds of the Information Revolution

The printing press unlocked literacy. Writer and critic Howard Rheingold once said, “You can’t have an industrial revolution, you can’t have democracies, you can’t have populations who can govern themselves until you have literacy.” Before the printing press was developed, reading books was considered a luxury; people were uninformed of the events happening in the world; knowledge was limited.

The history of transmitting words and images to external materials dates all the way back to the 2nd century when ancient Chinese were pressing flowers onto silk. By the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg became the turning point for the printing press, starting the “information revolution.” “To some extent the information revolution could be compared to a piece of music that starts quietly and builds up slowly, beat after beat, until it explodes in a blast.” Prior to Gutenberg, the ability to transmit, receive, and store knowledge was limited; soft beats of music. Gutenberg’s invention exploded the fast-changing beats with his perfected invention of moveable metal type. Aside from Gutenberg’s press, his most famous creation was the Gutenberg Bible, which he was able to print 200 copies.

The world became small with the invention of the printing press. Books, magazines, newspapers all became easily accessible. But, the art of the press has developed and changed drastically since the Gutenberg Press. What happened? Like a song mash up, the information revolution merged with the industrial revolution. Until the 19th century, printers accomplished each step of printing by hand. It was truly an art. As technology evolved, inventors modified these new technologies to revolutionize printing. Steam engines and electrical engines were integrated into the design of printing presses. The art of the press was now industrialized and no longer artistic.

Although the artfulness of the press is seemingly obsolete, the industrialization of the press has expanded our society and made it easy to transmit information throughout the world. The sound of printing is now computerized, but as time continues the novelty of the printing will change,

Technological Break-throughs and Social Conditions

Can you imagine that only a few people were able to read and write before the invention of the printing press? Before the advent of the printing press, people had to hand-write every text they wanted to keep or give to someone else. Writing and copying by hand was extremely time consuming. In addition, the number of books was limited, so it was difficult for people to learn new knowledge. The invention of movable type made written communication faster and cheaper, and thus helped to transmit knowledge. However, the technological-breakthrough needs right social conditions to have revolutionary impact. We can find the examples in both western and eastern countries.

In Europe, Martin Luther was able to transmit religious revolutionary ideas through all of Europe with mass-produced pamphlets called the Ninety Five Theses. Luther’s friends translated the Ninety Five Theses from Latin to German. At that time, only a few people were able to read Latin, but many ordinary people were able to read German. The Roman Catholic Church did not also suppress Luther’s printing. Luther was not only assisted by technology, but also by the literacy of the German people, and the social freedom to print.

Korea had movable metal type before the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. The Buddhist doctrine book “Jikji” is the oldest metal print book published in 1377. Even though Korea’s metal movable type was invented 70 years earlier than Gutenberg’s movable type, there was no kind of “information revolution.” In Korea, the use movable type was restricted because the Yi dynasty (imperial powers) feared that if low-ranking people learned to read and write and became more knowledgeable, it would be hard to control them! As a result, the transmission of knowledge through printing was only shared by royal people. Korea invented metal movable type earlier, but printing was suppressed by social conditions.

Both Germany and Korea had same technological break-through: the invention of movable metal type. These two examples show that a technological break-through alone cannot provide a revolutionary impact. The right social conditions are necessary for the impact of the technological break-through. Who knows? Today, there could be an innovative technological break-through that might be undermined by our social conditions.

Modern day metal movable type. Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by  KiHyuck Lee

Modern day metal movable type. Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Ki Hyuck Lee





Words–No, Letters–Rethought

Previous forms of communication carried through the oral and written—because they were limited to human ability—were extremely precious. Each hand-copied manuscript was elaborate and decorated deliberately, to enhance the experience of reading something that had been born through a laborious, yet meditative practice of the monks. Space was used generously, with massively illuminated letters and Carpet Pages wholly dedicated to the appreciation of hand-drawn, authentic, detail, and the mastery of ink and pen. Following the invention of the codex, the shift from previous forms of (auditory) reading with scrolls to silent reading, further gave value to the meditative process of reading.

When the printing press took the stage, the flood of possibilities for production and for new and varying audiences, gave way to what we call the “information revolution.” What the newly-invented printing press entailed was still considered excessive, but it was not the fascination of industrial labor which swept the printing press up in its fame. The information revolution began because the printing press not only allowed for ease of (or simply, “easier”) production, but provided for a type of reproduction that was coveted just decades before. The presentation of information became less ornamented during the transition from handwritten to type, but the precision of typeface, the experience from various arrangements of type, and the clarity of layout, became the new standard for progression. It was not until later, with the implementation of new techniques, that visuals began to seep back into the perfected blocks of text, promising to provide engagement and awe as the Carpet Page and illuminated manuscripts once did.

Prints from the letterpress, set to air-dry. Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Alvina Yau.

Prints from the letterpress, set to air-dry. Maryland Institute College of Art.