Landmarks

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A leaf from A Gutenberg 42-line Bible preserved in the British Library. The black text is printed but that in red ink, as well as the decorated initials, was added by hand. 

Although the human eye records flow rather than snapshots, human culture works with pictures rather than film.

Our myths, our heroes, our historical memory and the sum total of our cultural inheritance are the result of a kind of selectivity and distillation process whereby continuity is minimised in order to give rise to points on a grid. Cultural memory doesn’t record how a myth emerges, only that it emerged, subsequently enshrining it in the cultural capital bank as worthy of transmission, like genes passing through generations.

We remember Johannes Gutenberg as the inventor of movable type in the 15th century. Yet, his invention, like nearly every single invention in the history of mankind, was the crowning of a process in which historical developments, separate inventions, trial-and-error refinements and constructive failures created the conditions for an individual to make a breakthrough. But even breakthroughs are usually the work of groups operating in time, subject to flow, process and continuity. And it is precisely these which human culture tends to bracket out, preferring landmarks to the process of getting to those landmarks.

Gutenberg did not work alone. He did not have a eureka moment, but a ‘put-the-dots-together’ moment. Economic developments, the growth of the book trade, the advances in the art of engraving done by minters and goldsmiths as well as those in mechanical engineering, and many others, came to a head in Gutenberg’s imaginative, innovative and entrepreneurial mind. It is not a question of whether metal movable-type printing, which makes use of so many technologies in a particular socio-economic context, would have been invented by someone else in Western Europe. The real issue is that Gutenberg’s breakthrough was the result of a large number of factors. Besides, Gutenberg wasn’t recognised as the inventor of the printing press in Europe until several hundred years later, when anniversaries of his official birthday (agreed in 1900 as 24 June 1400) were starting to be observed.

Landmarks are real, but they conceal an important part of the story. It is perhaps time to focus on the backdrop as well.

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