by Michael S. Hart, eBooks inventor and Project Gutenberg co-founder
“Knowledge is power”—Francis Bacon. Shared knowledge empowers civilizations.
1. Did Water Monkeys Swim Before We Spoke?
Whence cometh language, the InfoTech that let us dominate our planet? We listen, we easily hallucinate word boundaries. No spaces—such as we use in writing this—separate spoken words. Yet somehow we find it easy to make sense of speech.
2. The Gift of Memory
For millennia, mnemonics reigned over commerce, news, entertainment, and the perpetuation and refinement of crafts.
3. From Whence Cometh Indo-European Tongues?
Did a fresh-water lake community flee a saltwater surge that filled the Black Sea and scatter its language west toward the Atlantic, southeast toward India and northeast toward the Pacific?
4. Scripting Symbols of Shape
Scripting symbolic images let man communicate over space and time. Balance of power shifts from tribal chiefs to city-state warrior kings and priests.
For centuries the Chinese keep to themselves “the wasps’ secret,” and then develop printing blocks —the precursor to Gutenberg’s wondrous invention. Paper and print nourish China’s awakening that dazzles Marco Polo.
7. Islam’s Great Gifts to the West
One precept of the Koran states that the human world's quest for knowledge leads to further knowing of Allah. Islam saves Classic wisdom and passes China’s the wasps’ secret to the West.
8. Charlemagne & Medieval Europe
The illiterate warrior king brings the scholarly monk Alcuin and his Literary Arts & Sciences School System to France to create the Carolingian renaissance. By changing the structure of words and sentences, the monk from York makes writing forever easier to read.
9. Largest Land Empire Ever
Illiterate tribes of nomad herder-hunters unite under Genghis Khan; then take less than a century to create the largest contiguous empire in world history.
10. Mongols Open the Way
They open the gate blocking direct human contact between Europe and China just in time to let I.T. wonders from the East nourish the Renaissance.
11. The Missing Keys to Science Chest
Ancient Greeks’ fear of the void blocked the advance of science for millennia, but Hindus in India and the Arabs unveil the numerical tools needed for modern science to emerge in the West.
12. Invaders from the North
Scandinavian tongues mingle with those of their Viking cousins, but the French language may exert even greater impact on the evolution of English. The Treasure of Our Tongue nourishes the rise of democracies.
The German goldsmith’s invention frees access to library books and breaks the chains of ignorance that held most of mankind in bondage for millennia.
14. Printers as Agents of Change
After the fall of Rome, Western culture focuses for centuries on guarding rather than expanding accumulated knowledge, but the shift from script to print amplifies, reinforces, and disseminates the power of knowledge.
15. Capitalism’s Link to Ink
Printers become “carriers of a spirit of capitalism” simply because they were capitalists themselves.
16. Shaping the English Language
William Caxton’s print shop helps standardize the “Treasure of Our Tongue,” and
Henry VIII’s first act as “Pope” orders and then funds the first printed English Bible.
17. Ottmar Mergenthaler Does It Again
Inventors strived from the early 1800s to mechanize Gutenberg’s process—unsuccessfully until Mergenthaler built his Linotype. But Ottmar’s name fell through history’s cracks.
18. ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’
Although as late as 1980, Linotypes still set eighty percent of the world’s text, most of those once-wondrous machines had been junked before 2000.