Honoring the printed page


Deer in Headlines

By Gery L. Deer

After nearly a decade and more than 320 editions of “Deer In Headlines,” I’ve learned a great deal about my readers. They come from all walks of life and consume information from every medium available. But regardless of whether you’re reading this is in the pages of your local newspaper or on the screen of your smart phone, it all started with something simpler.

A quick review of several sources on the history of writing shows a general consensus that the written language developed independently in at least two places: Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, around 3200 BC and 600 BC respectively. While language existed long before writing, it was only natural that early man would want to find a way to record information for others without passing it along verbally.

Cave drawings were some of the precursors to that early written language. The more complicated, hieroglyphic imagery of ancient Egypt and the advancement of character-driven Asian languages would have followed right along.

Fast forward a few thousand years and, while Johannes Gutenberg, the first man to print a Bible using movable type is sometimes also cited as the inventor of the printing press, it turns out that the Chinese actually developed it first.

Nearly 600 years before Gutenberg, the Chinese were using block printing, a method of inking carved, wooden blocks, each representing the thousands of Chinese characters, and pressing them to sheets of paper. However early press processes were achieved, and whoever is owed the credit, there is no question that the development of the printing press changed the world.

While visiting Boston recently, I stopped into one of the historical shops near the famous, Old North Church. In the same building with Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, the Printing Office of Edes and Gill is a recreation of an 18th Century print shop.

As tourists, myself included, poured into the tiny space and gather round a roped off line in front of an operational, 18th Century printing press, a period costumed man explained the intricacies of what it took to print and circulate the Declaration of Independence.

“You might think the final, hand-written version that we know now came first, but it came later,” the man explained. “Early drafts were first printed, edited, printed, edited, and printed again on a movable-type printing press like the one you see here.” He gestured toward the large, wooden structure to his left, which had typeset arranged to produce copies of the Declaration that people could buy as souvenirs.

When the final draft was created, written by hand, that became the document that was famously signed and now serves as the actual declaration officially separating the United States from England.

When he finished his canned presentation, he opened up for questions. What fascinated me was that, in a diversely mixed crowd, the foreign visitors had the best questions and deepest interest in the free speech content of his talk. (Something the rest of us red-blooded Americans could learn from right about now.)

Entire civilizations have depended on the printed page for stability and structure. Our own Constitution of the United States is a printed document that serves, not only to establish a set of principals for the governing of our nation, but also to guarantee our rights as free individuals.

Today, old-school presses are giving way to digital printing technologies and electronic media. Although the electronic book may be convenient and less expensive at times, it’s also hard to sign or collect as a keepsake. After all, the Bible or the Quran just never seem to offer the same “authority” or majesty, in electronic form.

We owe a great deal to those early printers. While I’m typing this on my computer, I am reminded of how I once used an electric typewriter, and how much easier that must have seemed to my parents’ generation than a manual. And before that we had to handwrite everything, forced to start over if you made a mistake. No “copy and paste,” or backspace key in those days. We owe a lot to the printing press.

Deer in Headlines

Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications, Ltd. More at www.gerydeer.com.

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