Writing Technologies

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Writing Technologies in the Renaissance1

Jonathan Sawday

In the final years of the fifteenth century, following the adoption of the mechanical press, the development of re-distributable type, and the use of high quality paper and oil-based inks, it was now possible to produce and distribute in virtually identical copies, texts and images. A fundamental product of the replicative capacities of the mechanical printing press was its capacity to produce ‘uniform spatio-temporal images’. 2 In this respect, we can think of the printed book as a form of memory appliance. It represented a means of storing and recovering complex information and ideas. Of course, printed texts could become corrupted or be reproduced from inferior originals. But print had the effect of ‘freezing’ an idea or a design at one stage of its evolution, which, in turn, made it easier to transmit technical information from one locality to another, or even, though time, from one generation to the next.3 Improvement, the process by which a design or an idea could be re-worked so that it became more efficient, or re-designed entirely and applied to an entirely different task, paradoxically, rested on that quality of fixity that seemed so unique to print.

The importance of print to the growth of scientific and intellectual culture in Europe in the sixteenth century has been comprehensively explored over the past few years.4 Perhaps surprisingly, its importance to technological culture has been less widely appreciated. Printing was, after all, the application of mechanism to the task of generating texts, and hence disseminating ideas. But it was also an offshoot of advances in metallurgy and the development of metal industries, particularly in southern Germany, in the early fifteenth century.5 We can, though, only speculate as to the extent to which the enormous growth in the circulation of printed material in both Europe and the ‘New World’ of the Americas (a printing press had been established in Mexico City as early as 1533), even within populations that were largely illiterate, fostered an interest in the mechanical culture which was both generated by, and helped in turn to foster the spread of the mechanical presses.6 Walter Ong, however, following Marshall McLuhan, has indicated some of the shifts in mentalités attributable to the advent of the printing press. For Ong, the printing press heralded the primacy of sight over hearing, the development of indexes and (later) dictionaries, the sense of a book being ‘less like an utterance and more like a thing’, the exploitation of ‘typographic space’ to generate meaning as in a poem such as George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’, or space as a marker of silence or absence as in the instance of the famous blank page in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759 – 1767). Even the development of the idea of the ‘point of view’, personal privacy, private ownership, and the sense of closure associated with literary texts, have been attributed to the advent of printing as a mechanical undertaking.7

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1. This essay offers a condensed version of some of the ideas pursued at more length in Jonathan Sawday, Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine (New York and London: Routledge, 2007) chs.1 and 3.

2. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 81.

3. See Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind's Eye (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 107 - 113; Thomas J. Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), pp. 26 - 28.

4. As well as the work of Eisenstein and Bennett (see below), see Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1997); Peter Murray Jones, 'Medicine and Science' in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (Vol. 3), ed. by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 433 - 448; Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), pp. 149 - 196; Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5. Lotte Hellinga, 'Printing' in Hellinga and Trapp (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, p. 69.

6. On the spread of the printing presses and the diffusion of books, see Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, 'Paperwolds: Imagining the Renaissance Computer' in Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 1.

7.See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982), pp. 115 - 129.

  Writing Technologies in the Renaissance