1pg:70lbs. 10billion pgs:3lbs
Stephen Fry’s journey through the production of the Gutenberg Bible shed light on what I thought I knew about printing, which was very very little. “What an antiquated notion,” I thought to myself (pre-video). “There’s no way THAT’S how printing as we know it originated! One letter at a time?! That would have taken hours!” But indeed, it did. Hours it took. Day, weeks, months even. Every single letter. First carved by hand in a very particular font and size, then replicated using a stamp-and-mold technique with much cheaper metal. Hundreds and hundreds of letters, necessary for only one case of type. Then organized and set, one letter, one space, one indentation at a time, until a page was fully composed. The sheer mass of a complete page set in type is unfathomable to most. Just small bins of leading are impossible to move without effort. One case of type when full could weigh up to 70 pounds. We type on a computer and our laptops never change size no matter how much information they store. Think about it. Pages and pages - documents, papers, resumes, websites - all saved on one machine forever, yet it never changes mass. 3 pounds, the average MacBook Air. Incredible. Incredible to think about how far we’ve come. How long it would have taken Gutenberg to set a single page of the first printed bible. Only after acquiring all of the type, manufacturing the paper, building the press, printing the sheet, only to dissmantle the page forever, retuning the letters to the case. A full page today - 300 words. Double spaced. Times New Roman. Less in Helvetica. Left justified. Header at the top. Return. Return. Body of page. 20 minutes. Less if I don’t think, just type. Stylistic elements - spacing, fonts, indentation, size - I can change after the fact in seconds with the swipe of a finger and the click of a button if I please. Not Gutenberg. Oh, how far we’ve come.
From Men to Materials to Machines
It is impossible to overlook the amount of…effort that went into printing one single page of type. Especially today, as I sit here clicking away at square buttons, watching letters string themselves together right before my eyes. Then, with a simple command from my thumb and pointer finger, my machine communicates with a different machine across the room, and my string of letters materialize onto paper in the time it takes me to walk over and retrieve them. Today, it’s that simple. But let’s not overlook the technological advancements the printing press brought in its time. The same way we look at our laptops as incredibly efficient ways to get words onto paper, the world saw Gutenberg’s press in the same light - ‘what an efficient way to get words onto paper! No more scribes writing every letter by hand!’ Pages and pages of text could be printed in minutes, something that had never been done before. So while it seems antiquated to us today, we must not forget how revolutionary the printing press was in its heyday.
Both Sarah Werner and Herman Melville speak to the countless people that go into printing one single page of text. Over this last week, preparing to set our own type, I’ve gained a special appreciation for both the number of people necessary to make printing possible and the amount of effort that goes into a project. Even a page of a project! (While revolutionary, this process was not simple by any means.) If I’ve learned anything, it is that texts were NOT easy to make. When considering professions, like Werner explores in her piece, it was not just a writer and a printer. According to her, printing included an author, a publisher, a speculator, a printer, and a buyer (all of which were women in her example, a peculiar occurrence in printing’s early stages). Melville speaks to paper production and the women hidden away responsible for its creation. Even the quality of the paper had to be determined before hand because that determined the necessary cloth required for its production. So. Many. Steps.
Over the last week, I’ve explored the labor involved in all steps of the process. But with this comes a certain artistic element that has been (arguably) lost. Printing like Gutenberg is a novel, dying skill. It is inefficient, labor intensive, and rudimentary when compared to modern technology. But using a printing press is more artistic than mechanical in a lot of ways. What we’ve lost is the studio. The art still exists - book are still printed - but anyone can print anything from anywhere. The concept of a printer has become relatively obsolete. So what do we do with this? We must appreciate the work that went into early printing because it’s often forgotten. That’s what I’ve realized preparing to print. Printing was a skill. A profession. An art form. Today, for most, it’s simply a command.