Composing and Typing - The Printing Way

The Experience

As an avid problem-solver and a scholar with an investigative mind, I was completely fascinated by Stephen Fry’s The Machine That Made Us. I understood his enthusiasm and his drive to learn more about how things work - as I am an engineer and a scientist at heart. During the Markdown Lab I spoke briefly about how I feel that writing by hand is more authentic than writing in Markdown or typing. I feel a similar sense of authenticity and ownership about doing something so hands-on. We are so involved in the process of printing that I know when I see my final product I will feel a strong sense of achievement, knowing that I was engaged in the process and took an active part in shaping the final product.

There is something intrinsic about the value of the texts created during the hand press period. During the creation of the texts, so many pairs of hands touched it - through composing, designing, and printing. This makes me value the texts more and all the labor that was involved in the entire process. To print something today seems like an intuitive task: we press a few buttons on the keyboard to see some letters on the screen and we click a few commands on the screen to print to a mechanical printer. To print something during the hand press period involved hours of demanding labor, detailed planning, and precise execution.

The People Behind the Printed Works

We look at the whole printing operation as a genius invention and one that changed the history of book-making. I see the entire process of composing types as a fascinating act and one that captivates my attention. As a result of this experience I’ve begun to value books made during this period a lot more because of all the time and effort that was required. The evolution of printing has enabled leaders to spread ideas such as political ideologies and philosophical theories. Through the discussion in class, we spoke about how printers at the time were the gatekeepers of literary taste. Certain print shops may refuse to print certain publications about topics they don’t believe in - while others may support the more progressive writers. Printed works became a way to spread ideas and for advocacy.

The print shops described in the readings remind me of some of the factories in today’s world where cheap labor is used in order to produce the product we see in the markets. To print a book is a whole industrial operation of its own, impossible to carry out unless every part of the production is successful. The production expects the compositors to compose the correct types, the papermakers to manufacture the appropriate paper, and the press operators to apply the right amount of force. Investors entrust a lot of power to the print shop because the print shops were the medium to popularize their published work.


I wonder if the workers in the print shop feel the type of ownership I felt while composing my own work. I’ve gained so much more appreciation for industrial and technological advancement after experiencing this lab. Printing was not an easy task, it was as complex as a business operation, with multiple layers and multiple points of entry. Book-making did not become simpler with the invention of the printing press, in fact, I think book-making become more complex in different ways. In addition, The introduction of the printing press kindled n societal expectation of perfection. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see my final printed work.