Books and Printing and Mormons. Part 5.

Type is regularization/uniformization of handwriting. Handwriting samples are known from before 3,000BC. It is certain that nearly all instances of early writing are lost to the ravages of time and circumstance. Some of the more sturdy methods of recording early writing have survived because of accidental or purposeful preservation. Ancient texts by the ancient Sumerians and for the next two millennia or so, all texts were produced by hand in ink on papyrus, animal skins, on wet clay via wooden stylus, on metal sheets, and so on.

The first known printed books were produced by woodblock printing in ninth-century China. Block printing requires that the desired text be carved in mirror image relief on a block of wood. The block was inked and then pressed onto the reading surface. Paper as we moderns think of it was only beginning to be produced 2,000 years ago.

Systems deploying individual pieces of type appear in Korea about a thousand years ago. Individual characters were carved on clay, and later wooden blocks. These methods were cumbersome in that culture for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, metal type was developed about 1200AD in Asia though it remained a secret from the outside world.

Around the same time, Europeans were using wooden type-blocks to produce things like images of Saints. About 200 years later, around 1440AD, Johannes Gutenberg (1396-1468?) began to experiment with alloys of lead, tin and antimony for type and ink made, not from the water-based materials used by the monks for centuries, but oil-based sticky material (so it would stay on the typeface) colored by a carbon source like lamp-black with mixtures of metals like titanium, copper and lead. Printing became a poisonous enterprise. Ink was produced in batches in Gutenberg’s shop and the recipe varied over time, perhaps intentionally.[1]

Gutenberg’s recipe of lead, antimony and tin for “mono”type was genius. It is still used to cast individual type today.

The Epistle of St. Jerome from Gutenberg's Bible on paper. (He produced 40 copies on vellum too.)

The Epistle of St. Jerome from Gutenberg’s Bible on paper. (He produced 40 copies on vellum too.)

As usual with any new enterprise, there needs to be a market for it, lest it die on the vine. This meant that Gutenberg’s product had to at least compete with the scribes for quality. The extensive and elaborate decorations of some codices were out of the question (though, Gutenberg still used illustration). But the scribes also used many fancy bits like ligatures and similar abbreviation to create justified text. Gutenberg’s typesetters required a wide selection of symbols and Gutenberg’s font contained nearly 300 characters, even though a complete Latin font requires only 40, plus some punctuation marks. Gutenberg’s type was a gothic style and the follow on German printers used the same, mostly because the scribes were using a very similar handwritten script. A few years later the Italians were in the game and invented the “Bookhands” font, whose characters match very closely the ones you’re reading right now. Italic type came around in 1500AD thanks to Aldus Manutius of Venice.

The first printers were polymaths. They did everything from building the press, designing and making type and ink, to printing and selling the results. Eventually, printing and making the equipment for printing became separate dependent crafts. The printing industry exploded. For the next 400 years, the process was more or less static. There were improvements in type handling, paper and ink making and press design, but essentially the process was the one forged by Gutenberg and his fellow pioneers. And that brings us to 1829 and Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon.

Next: The manual press.

[1] See, R. N. Schwab, et al. “Cyclotron analysis of the ink in the 42-line Bible,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 77 (1983), 285-315. Most of the evidence points to Gutenberg as the inventor of modern type, though others have been suggested.

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