By Elof Axel Carlson
Knowledge can be conveyed by oral tradition or by written language.
The earliest writings were on mud tablets (cuneiform tablets in Sumerian culture) or paper (papyrus sheets in Egypt in the ages of the pharaohs). Paper replaced mud or wooden tablets during the Middle Ages and some monasteries made copying texts (mostly religious commentaries and bibles) a major activity for monks.
Most of humanity was illiterate until the 15th century. What changed? One of the greatest inventions was movable type, which allowed words to be arranged from metal letters. They could be aligned into sentences and pages and then placed in a wooden press and smeared with an oil-based ink.
The inventor of this technology was Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468). He raised the money from Johann Fust. Gutenberg’s son-in-law marketed the books Gutenberg printed (the Bible being his first large-scale project).
Printed books became affordable to the new middle class emerging in Renaissance Europe. They also became more diverse and translations (into Latin) of Greek texts were in heavy demand. The first biology text printed in 1476 was “De Animalibus” by Aristotle (translated from the Greek to Latin because Latin was the universal language of scholars throughout Europe until the 19th century).
The first book in a different language was a German book in 1461. The first book in English was in 1475. Euclid’s “Elements of Geometry” was printed in 1482. The first book printed in North America, “The Bay Psalm Book,” was printed in 1640.
The problem with an oral tradition is its vulnerability to change with time and a high risk of losing lots of information. Written language can survive if preserved copies are kept in libraries, monasteries or royal households. The explosion of knowledge that came during the Renaissance owed much of its success to printing.
Books were translated into Latin (and during the later Enlightenment into vernacular German, Italian, English and other languages). They could also be written to reflect new knowledge and commentary on any topic.
Before printing, it took a monk about a year to copy a book using pen, ink and paper. Gutenberg’s press could produce 240 sheets of pages per day. It was not until the 1820s that steam-driven presses became available to scale up the production of books and newspapers. It also required the introduction of paper mills to mass produce paper from discarded clothing or from wood pulp.
When Martin Luther led his Reformation movement and separated his followers from the authority of the Vatican, he ordered placing the Bible as the prime authority for religious instruction. He shifted it to German so it could be read by all Lutherans. This shifted printing from limited printings of scholarly or commercial technical books to mass production of texts where education was compulsory for all children and for mass production of Bibles so every household would have a Bible.
As in many instances of new technology, these changes could not be anticipated when Gutenberg first introduced his printing press. Once made available, more books appeared. More books led to more readership. More readership led to the spread of diverse views of life and society. Once more diversity entered so did a ferment of ideas on how we should live, what we should revere, and what careers would emerge as new knowledge spread.
For the scholar it led to the university and to higher degrees certifying an exposure to knowledge in dozens of fields old and new.
Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.