There are tasks that look easy until you attempt them yourself. Our brains are remarkably incompetent at calculating the effort required for a task we have not faced ourselves. Even if we understand intellectually that the work involved must be intense, actually doing the job often surprises us. So it is with operating the printing-press.
This project of physically setting type for printing has provided a small empathetic window into the process, something that cannot be conveyed by reading descriptions or watching videos.
If any media could come close to conveying the nature of the task, it would be Stephen Fry’s documentary The Machine that Made Us, which actually took the time to walk the viewer through the entire process of printing from forging the letters to unveiling the finished page. Yet though the video showed much of the process, it skipped over the aspect of printing that we experienced in the lab. If anything, it is best understood as a companion piece to the exercise, allowing us to place ourselves as the group who assemble the majority of the type for Stephen to print.
The effort required to make an exact copy of a book on a printing press may not be as intensive as that required for a scribe to copy it on their desk, but it creates an interesting new dynamic. While the labor required to assemble one book in the press is roughly comparable to the labor of copying out a page by hand, it is infinitely easier for the printing press to make a large quantity of identical copies. For the scribe, ten copies of the same book require virtually the same physical labor as one copy each of ten different books. One could see this creating a dilemma: what books are worthy of being mass produced on the press?
In 15th century Europe, use of the printing press began with indulgences and the Bible, reflecting the omnipresence of the church in the lives of the people. What would it have printed if churches were less prevalent? If that role in society had been filled by a military dictatorship, would the press have been used to print marching orders? And would there then be a Martin Luther analog to incite rebellion against the state? What kinds of societies invent the printing press, and how does it change them? These are questions we will not be able to answer until we can peer fully beyond our sphere of understanding.
If, as Stephen Fry concludes, the printing press is “the machine that made us,” then it should be the duty of all participants in our society to familiarize themselves with the operation of the machine. Indeed we should all be acquainted with the various aspects of our society, if only to properly appreciate those who make it possible. Through direct and deliberate mindfulness of our surroundings, we can recognize the undercurrent of our societal trends and act responsibly as cognizant citizens.