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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015



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Is Gutenberg relevant in an age of electrons? Part I

In the year 2000, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press consistently ranked in the top ten (usually at number one) inventions of the second millennium. We love lists. Gutenberg’s invention was right up there with such notable things as the electric light, the telephone, the computer, space flight, and glass windows. But is the printing press, even in its current incarnations, still relevant as a history changing invention?

The Invention of Mass Production

We could argue about this for a long time, but I’ve chosen simply to start a few posts about what kind of contributions Gutenberg made with his invention of the printing press and how they permeate society today. Not surprisingly, very few of these items have to do with the physical invention itself. Yes, Gutenberg created a matrix punch system for creating molds. Yes, he got the formula for lead type dimensionally stable. Yes, he mixed an ink that would adhere to the lead and that could be transferred to a substrate and that would have blackness and durability to last centuries. Yes, he figured out how to adapt a wine press for printing. Isn’t that enough?

TGRCoverThe importance of the printing press was not in putting ink on paper. Let’s take one example of how this changed the world. The printing of the Gutenberg Bible is the first example of mechanical mass production.

I find this amusing. Even with my eBooks and my e-reader, I find myself lovingly caressing paper books, beaming with pride over my newest release, feeling like “it is real” once I hold the physical object in my hands. Is there any other mass-production artifact that I feel the same way about? I’m not even that fond of my car. I disdain the coffee shops that use automated espresso machines to measure the coffee, tamp it to perfection, and force water at the exact right temperature through the grounds as “coin-op baristas.” I’ve always considered mass-produced and automated to be inferior to handmade.

Yet, for nearly five centuries after the Gutenberg Bible, the greatest technical advance in printing was adding steam or electric power to the press, removing it one step further from the craft of creating books. There’s nothing really like a good old-fashioned hand-written scroll.

But the impact of the printing press on the way we create things today is undeniable. Even the computers, smartphones, and e-readers we use to create and read electronic books are themselves manufactured and mass-produced. To be sure, we use robotics and sterile environments for the assembly-line work, but the process used is essentially the same one that Gutenberg used to automate the production of books.

Relevance score in manufacturing processes: 10.

(The Gutenberg Rubric, a novel by Nathan Everett, will be released on July 28. Order your copy today!)