The written word allowed us to preserve human knowledge, or data, from generation to generation. We know only what we can observe from ancient remains from before writing, but we know more and more about societies as generations of people literate enough to document their stories spread. And the more documented, the more knowledge to easily find and build upon, thus a more rapid amount of innovation available to each generation...
The Sumerians established the first written language in the third millennium BCE. They carved data on clay. Written languages spread and by the 26th century BCE the Diary of Merer was written to document building the Great Pyramid of Giza. They started with papyrus, made from the papyrus plant. They would extract the pulp and make thin sheets from it. The sheets of papyrus ranged in color and how smooth the surface was. But papyrus doesn’t grow everywhere.
People had painted on pots and other surfaces and ended up writing on leather at about the same time. Over time, it is only natural that they moved on to use parchment, or stretched and dried goat, cow, and sheep skins, to write on. Vellum is another material we developed to write on, similar, but made from calfskin. The Assyrians and Babylonians started to write on vellum in the 6th century BCE.
The Egyptians wrote what we might consider data that was effectively included into pictograms we now call hieroglyphs on papyrus and parchment with ink. For example, per the Unicode Standard 13.0 my cat would be the hieroglyph 130E0. But digital representations of characters wouldn’t come for a long time. It was still carved in stone or laid out in ink back then.
Ink was developed by the Chinese thousands of years ago, possibly first by mixing soot from a fire and various minerals. It’s easy to imagine early neolithic peoples stepping in a fire pit after it had cooled and realizing they could use first their hands to smear it on cave walls and then a stick and then a brush to apply it to other surfaces, like pottery. By the time the Egyptians were writing with ink, they were using iron and ocher for pigments.
India ink was introduced in the second century in China. They used it to write on bamboo, wooden tablets, and even bones. It was used in India in the fourth century BCE and used burned bits of bone, powders made of patroleum called carbon black, and pigments with hide glue then ground and dried. This allowed someone writing to dip a wet brush into the mixture in order to use it to write. And these were used up through the Greek and then Roman times.
More innovative chemical compounds would be used over time. We added lead, pine soot, vegetable oils, animal oils, mineral oils, and while the Silk Road is best known for bringing silks to the west, Chinese ink was the best and another of the luxuries transported across it, well into the 17th century.
Ink wasn’t all the Silk Road brought. Paper was first introduced in the first century in China. During the Islamic Golden Age, the islamic world expanded the use in the 8th century, and adding the science to build larger mills to make pulp and paper. Paper then made it to Europe in the 11th century.
So ink and paper laid the foundation for the mass duplication of data. But how to duplicate?
We passed knowledge down verbally for tens of thousands of years. Was it accurate with each telling? Maybe. And then we preserved our stories in a written form for a couple thousand years in a one to one capacity. The written word was done manually, one scroll or book at a time. And so they were expensive. But a family could keep them from generation to generation and they were accurate across the generations.
Knowledge passed down in written form and many a manuscript was copied ornately, with beautiful pictures drawn on the page. But in China they were again innovating. Woodblock printing goes back at least to the second century to print designs on cloth. But had grown to include books by the seventh century. The Diamond Sutra was a Tang Dynasty book from 868 that may be the first printed book, using wood blocks that had been carved in reverse.
And moveable type came along in 1040, from Bi Sheng in China. He carved letters into clay. Wang Chen in China then printed a text on farming practices called Nung Shu in 1297 and added a number of innovations to the Chinese presses. And missionaries and trade missions from Europe to China likely brought reports home, including copies of the books.
Intaglio printing emerged where lines were cut, etched, or engraved into metal plates, dipped into ink and then pressed onto paper. Similar tactics had been used by goldsmiths for some time.
But then a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg began to experiment using similar ideas just adding the concept of moveable type. He used different alloys to get the letter pressing just right - including antimony, lead, and tin. He created a matrix to mold new type blocks, which we now refer to as a hand mould. He experimented with different kinds of oil and water-based inks. And vellum and paper.
And so Gutenberg would get credit for inventing the printing press in 1440. This took the basic concept of the screw press, which the Romans introduced in the first century to press olives and wine and added moveable type with lettering made of metal. He was at it for a few years. Just one problem, he needed to raise capital in order to start printing at a larger scale. So he went Johann Fust and took out a loan for 800 guilders. He printed a few projects and then thought he should start printing Bibles. So he took out another loan from Fust for 800 more guilders to print what we now call the Gutenberg Bible and printed indulgences from the church as well.
By 1455 he’d printed 180 copies of the Bible and seemed on the brink of finally making a profit. But the loan from Fust at 6% interest had grown to over 2,000 guilders and once Fust’s son-in-law was about to run the press, he sued Gutenberg, ending up with Gutenberg’s workshop and all of the Bibles basically bankrupting Gutenberg by 1460. He would die in 1468.
The Mainz Psalter was commissioned by the Mainz archbishop in 1457 and Fust along with Peter Schöffer, a Gutenberg assistant, would use the press to become the first book to be printed with the mark of the printer. They would continue to print books and Schöffer added putting dates in books, colored ink, type-founding, punch cutting, and other innovations. And Schöffer’s sons would carry on the art, as did his grandson.
As word spread of the innovation, Italians started printing presses by 1470. German printers went to the Sorbonne and by 1476 they set up companies to print. Printing showed up in Spain in 1473, England in 1476, and Portugal by 1495. In a single generation, the price of books plummeted and the printed word exploded, with over 20 million works being printed by 1500 and 10 times that by 1600.
Before Gutenberg, a single scribe could spend years copying only a few editions of a book before the printing press and with a press, up to 3,600 pages a day could be printed. The Catholic Church had the market on bibles and facing a cash crunch, Pope Alexander VI threatened to excommunicate printing manuscripts. In two decades, John Calvin and Martin Luther changed the world with their books - and Copernicus followed quickly by other scientists published works, even with threats of miscommunication or the Inquisition.
As presses grew, new innovative uses also grew. We got the first newspaper in 1605. Literacy rates were going up, people were becoming more educated and science and learning were spreading in ways it had never done before. Freedom to learn became freedom of thought and Christianity became fragmented as other thinkers had other ideas of spirituality. We were ready for the Enlightenment.
Today we can copy and paste text from one screen to the next on our devices. We can make a copy of a single file and have tens of thousands of ancient or modern works available to us in an instant. In fact, plenty of my books are available to download for free on sites with or without mine or my publisher’s consent. Or we can just do a quick Google search and find most any book we want. And with the ubiquity of literacy we moved from printed paper to disks to online and our content creation has exploded. 90% of the data in the world was created in the past two years. We are producing over 2 quintillion bytes of data daily. Over 4 and a half billion people are connected, What’s crazy is that’s nearly 3 and a half billion people who aren’t online.
Imagine having nearly double the live streamers on Twitch and dancing videos on TikTok! I have always maintained a large physical library. And while writing many of these episodes and the book it’s only grown. Because some books just aren’t available online, even if you’re willing to pay for them.
So here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with today: history is also full of anomalies or moments when someone got close to a discovery but we would have to wait thousands of years for it to come up again. The Phaistos Disc is a Minoan fired clay tablet from Greece. It was made by stamping Minoan hieroglyphs onto the clay.
And just like sometimes it seems something may have come before its time, we also like to return to the classics here and there. Up until the digital age, paper was one of the most important industries in the world. Actually, it still is. But this isn’t to say that we haven’t occasionally busted out parchment for uses in manual writing. The Magna Carta and the US Constitution were both written on parchment.
So think about what you see that is before its time, or after. And keep a good relationship with your venture capitalists so they don’t take the printing presses away.