Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006

The History of Power From the Gutenberg Revolution to the Computer Revolution

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The History of Power From the Gutenberg Revolution to the Computer Revolution

Written by Michael Hart
Illustration by Alfred Klosterman



This piece is a result of conversations with a number of knowledgeable people who do not seem to be as aware of the history of power as I expected, with an emphasis on the kind of power used in the Industrial Revolution through today which I am hopefully labeling as the Neo-Industrial Revolution.

The kinds of power under discussion will range from ancient waterwheels to an electronic age that most of us don't understand yet even though we are living right in the middle of the Internet Age and computers are ubiquitous and this will also include several kinds of social, political and economic power.

Today few of us can deny the power of the Internet, as Dan Rather, one of the most powerful persons in the world was in the middle of efforts to bring down an even more powerful person, The President of the United States, when no one in particular, a person with a name that will not go down in history, pointed out in Internet discussions, specifically in World Wide Web discussions, that Mr. Rather's sources were somewhat suspect in some too modern form of content that were never actually challenged, yet another triumph of form over content that I have recorded over the years.

This kind of power, the power of a nobody to put an end to the career of such a person as Dan Rather, head of CBS News and to successfully retain George W. Bush as President of the United States is the one kind of power Martin Luther used when he brought down the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, again through, as fate would have it, an unnamed person or person who republished his words, via the Gutenberg press, the Internet of Luther's day.

The world had hardly been aware of the Gutenberg press for the half a century since Gutenberg's invention changed the face of publishing forever, and today the world has hardly been aware of the Computer Revolution for fifty years. Yet these two events, some half a millennium apart, both changed the world in the same manner, bringing information to the public that had heretofore been only the province of the elites of education and wealth and power, though they did not always reside together in the same person, family, or company.

The Gutenberg press was run by human muscle power and even though limitations of human power were great, the ability of only a few people to turn out books that should have taken the monks and scribes of that era lifetimes to produce on their own was an astonishing event, even from the perspective of five hundred years later and beyond.

The fact that anyone, much less an unknown such as Martin Luther, challenging the Roman Catholic Church, could have even the remotest chance of success was heretical at least, and revolutionary at best.

Yet most of us, even half a millennium later, have heard of Martin Luther and the Protestant Movement of which he was the father.

What we don't often hear is that we only know of him because his friends took his words to the local Kinko's du jour and made copies, copies they then sent to influential people around Europe. The rest, as they say, is history.

From these small beginnings as far as print shops go, huge beginnings, as far as the effects of those print shops goes, comes the entire publishing history that is one of the major subjects we are considering.

Another kind of power is the kind that powered the Gutenberg presses as those evolved into more and more advanced forms of publication such as steam and/or electrically powered printing presses. Interestingly enough, I haven't found any references to water powered printing presses, even though enough water power had already been harnessed for the making of paper in wider portions of the world long before Gutenberg. Perhaps any of my readers who can find such a reference to water powered printing presses would advise me.

Most historians pretty much ignore the effects of the Gutenberg Revolution in any other aspect than directly related to publishing, concentrating on merely—if the word "merely" can be used on something so important—on the facts that millions of books, perhaps as many as about twenty-five million, according to some for whom this is a topic of scholarly expertise, were published using the presses following the model of the Gutenberg press by the end of the 1400's. Some, in their scholarly wisdom, even give Gutenberg credit for starting what became that historical period known as the Scientific Revolution.

But none of them seem to give Gutenberg credit for what eventually became the Industrial Revolution, even though he obviously invented the first example of what later became known as "mass production."

In Gutenberg's shop, two experienced printers could turn out work that should have been over a decade's work by an experienced scribe and do it in one day, with each page identical to every other page. It should be noted here that a scribe didn't always try to keep the same words on the same pages, nor did it seem reasonable to expect that every word would be spelled exactly the same.

Two hundred fifty pages an hour, at least ten hours a day, thousands of pages per day . . .

Mass production.

By the end of the 1400's there were as many print shops in Europe as the page count from a day's labor by those two man print teams.

2500 printing presses each producing 2500 pages per day equals 6,250,000 pages per day, presuming only a 10 hour workday (short for the time) and no press improvements.

Truly mass production. More books were printed with these Gutenberg press print shops that had been printed in all previous history. 30,000 titles.

However, let's not presume that there was no reactionary politicking on the subject of this publishing revolution.

The Stationers Guild, the organization of secular scribes on the order of Bob Cratchit of Dickens' A Christmas Carol fame (though Mr. Cratchit also did arithmetic on his pages) was not pleased to see its previously permanent monopoly lost to this single invention that turned the entire idea of "bookness" upside down.

Indeed, those who had bought libraries of books before the Gutenberg press had some aversion to the addition of these new kinds of books to their libraries, as they might devalue the enormous cost of the previous collection.

For these people it was obviously not the content of the book that was of the greatest concern for determining its value, but some other factor(s). Today, in my own efforts to bring electronic books to the world, I often see much the same sort of thing.

After all, why would anyone want a one pound library that contained as many books as the average public library down the road? As well as have that library at home and easily searchable?

Obviously, such paradigm shifts take much longer for those heavily invested in the previously existent paradigm, as has been exemplified in so many ways.

As always, these paradigm shifts seem to come faster and faster as time goes by, and eventually some come to the point of "Future Shock."

It took two hundred fifty years for the Stationers Guild, later renamed Stationers Company, to finally regain their monopolistic control over the publishing industry, at least in Great Britain, as the number of titles available for UK readers fell from 6,000 to 600 overnight, thus beginning the trade in illegal books from a perspective of both censorship and scholarship.

Going back to the Gutenberg Revolution, it doesn't take much research to find examples of books being taken out of publication by the Catholic Church via a process of burning the publisher at the stake.

The powers and forces at work here, both secular and religious, are powerful, amazing in that they have gone largely unreported throughout history, and are still engaged in the same kind of behavior today.

Perhaps the reason that they are so largely unreported is that the very ones we would rely on to convey them must go through the very publishing industry that would censor what they have to say.

Here are a few example in light of the kinds of power discussed here:

The first publishing revolution was obviously that of Johannes Gutenberg and the reactionary politicking of the stationers managed to stifle or take over all of the presses in Great Britain via "The Statute of Anne" in 1709-1710: the first successful copyright law as we know it today.

I say "first successful copyright law" because the stationers attempted with even harsher copyrights at least back to 1557, and probably even earlier.

These earlier copyright laws, even when they became law, were so stringent a restriction on all rights to all writings for all previous history, giving a total monopoly to the stationers on everything ever written, that no one saw them as being worthy of obedience or enforcement.

However, it should be noted that the origin of copyright law dates back from before the Statute of Anne, and that the Statute of Anne was only a good law by comparison to these previous attempts.

Even so, for the first fourteen years of publication, all rights belonged to member publishers of the Stationers Company, and the only rights for the author was a possible fourteen year renewal that could only be made by a living author and was of no value if the book was already out of print or if the stationers decided a book should go out of print when the author renewed the copyright.

This is what happens when you allow the previous status quo to be retained a longer period through legislation.

Yet the examples go far and wide.

Most of us have studied steam power to some extent, from the tales of a Mr. John Henry competing head to head with a steam powered drill to Fulton's steamboat, to the steam locomotive and even the Stanley Steamer that held an assortment of speed records for many more decades that one might think. The nuclear navy is all steam powered, when it comes down to it.

The history of steam power is quite amazing, even down to the steam power of harvesters and threshers that used to travel the United States as crops came in and for a relatively small fee would bring in the crops in much less time and with much less worry about the weather.

Yes, the history of steam power is most fascinating, and worth a good look.

But most of us have never heard of steam power printing presses.

Why not?

Here is the story.

The United States became an independent country and started its copyright in 1790 with only a relatively small number of copyright issued to start with.

Nevertheless, when these first twenty-eight year copyright periods began to expire for those relatively few books still in print and making a profit, a new patent, for the first high speed steam printing press, was issued in 1830, just time enough to start republishing the first expiring copyrighted U.S. materials.

Once again a new publishing technology was stifled by copyright law with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1831, which extended previous copyrights fourteen more years and thus stopped the owners of the new high speed steam presses cold.

The same thing is true of electricity.

Just as steam power was the up and coming thing two centuries, complete with new high speed printing presses.

For the record, it should be noted that they very first electric printing press patent was issued in the same decade as that high speed steam press mentioned above, but steam was the more prevalent form of power for an awfully long time, so electric presses didn't get much publicity, and should be noted as not being viable at all where there was no electric power.

However, by one century ago, electricity was the rage, and steam power could be relied upon to transport materials quickly and inexpensively to vast wide populations in areas that used to be considered quite remote.

The combination of wide railroad service with new higher speed printing left an opening that Sears and Roebuck couldn't resist and they published catalog books of 768 pages, complete with lavish illustration, and mailed them via a new Rural Federal Delivery system, to millions and millions of households at no cost to the recipient.

For millions of people this was the first book they ever owned.

Once again, this sort of thing was too much for the old publishing industry, as new publishers sprang up at remote railroad crossings, installed printing presses that could fill a boxcar overnight, and shipped books far and wide—at prices that gave heart attacks to the olde boye networke publishers.

The result, a third copyright law, again expressly designed to stifle yet an entirely new technology of publication.

The evidence of this is still available at your local used book store.

Just go in and ask for books that are about one hundred years old.

You'll find a number of reprint houses dating back before 1909, when the new copyright law went into effect, but only a few of them remained much after.

Before 1909, well over 90% of all books at least thirty years old were reprints, simply because their copyrights had not been renewed in their twenty-eighth year.

The original publishers didn't find it profitable to keep them in print.

However, with the new technologies of printing and distribution, publishers of the new variety were able to make a profit where the olde boye networkes had been too lackadaisical to invest.

Instead, they invested in the Jack Abramoff lobbyists of their day, just the same way as in the day of the steam powered printing presses, and just that exact same way as the stationers had invested in the first copyright laws.

Thus we now see three information ages stifled by this kind of legislation, each time paid for by the olde boye networke of publishers.

The fourth such information age was that of the Xerox machine, and its very similar demise at the hands of the U.S. Copyright act of 1976.

The fifth such information age is the one we currently occupy, and its very similar efforts by the olde boye networke of publishers via U.S. copyright, as set forth in the "Sonny Bono Copyright Act" or "Mickey Mouse Copyright," as the U.S. Copyright Act of 1998 is often called.

Thus we see that the five major steps of the Industrial Revolution have the same response from the olde boye networke of the day:

Let's pass a law to make our competition illegal.

These parallels between publishing and Industrial Revolutions have not been mere accidents of history, as might be thought due to the fact that history as taught and written by historians, has hardly mentioned them at all.

Nevertheless, a popular media, even though they are still part of the "olde boye networke of publishers," or at least wannabees, have had little effort required in deciding that the Gutenberg press was the greatest invention of the last millennium, and that Johannes Gutenberg was the greatest person.

Yet, with all the goings on surrounding such proclamations, in publications going to millions or even billions, no mention of the cataclysmic powers by which the Gutenberg press was stifled in Great Britain to the point that of 30,000 titles in print in Europe in 1500, and who knows how many added from 1500 to 1700, only 600 titles remained in print by the Stationers and those were all in London so it doesn't take much imagination to envision what the process must have been like for someone from the more remote areas. If you have trouble with such a vision, just read a little Jane Austen to envision what the London scene was as compared to the rest of the country.

These books are available free of charge at http://www.gutenberg.org, along with nearly 20,000 others, and a total of over 50,000 from the various site locations of other Project Gutenberg efforts around the world.

* * *.

Now a similar look at other aspects of Industrial Revolutions.

Since so many people tell me they can't see the cause and effect between a Gutenberg press and the Industrial Revolution, a moment to lay out some of the more obvious connections.

1. Metallurgy

2. Mechanical Leverage

3. Social Leverage

4. Political Leverage

5. Interchangeable Parts

6. Mass Production

* * *

1. Metallurgy

Before Gutenberg metallurgy wasn't that far removed from alchemy, and that metallurgy was mostly concentrated on weaponry and jewelry, not industrial applications, and just barely agricultural applications.

Before Gutenberg, high tech weaponry was knights in armor and their lances and the various gear for foot soldiers, archers, stirrups, and just barely, gunpowder and firearms.

The tools of science were rudimentary at best and would be refined greatly by the advances of the Industrial Revolution.

Johannes Gutenberg was the first major user of metallurgy for utilitarian, industrial purposes of mass production.

Does anyone really think the Industrial Revolution would have happened via a thought process that did not include mass production?

This point alone should be sufficient to make even the most ardent of such detractors rethink their position that the Gutenberg press was not a real, if not the real, precursor to the Industrial Revolution.

2. Mechanical Leverage

For those who really want to think about the Industrial Revolution, ideals about leverage or "mechanical advantage" as they called it, are necessary.

The Gutenberg press employed several kinds of mechanical leverage, most of it taken outright from presses used to extract juices and oils from a wide variety of crops.

However, this time the leverage was used for something other than replaced previous methods of doing the same thing.

We can talk about leverage going back to the caveman's club, and up to the point, the literal point, of the knight's lance, arrow tips, and even that dual leverage of the sword edge that makes it so effective, but the major, repeat major, difference is that this leverage was for industrial purposes that had never been considered before.

Does anyone really think the Industrial Revolution would have happened via a thought process that did not include industrial leverage?

3. Social Leverage

Here we change value systems from technology to society.

Technological inventions are one thing, sociological inventions another.

Before Gutenberg all inventions were of the "trickle down" variety.

The invention started with the rich and trickled down to the poor.

The Gutenberg press was an invention that brought books to everyone, right from the first generation anyone noticed it was there.

It was not something first monopolized by the rich, then "trickled down."

A basic effect of the Gutenberg press was general sociological advantage.

Does anyone really think the Industrial Revolution would have happened via a thought process that did not include sociological advantage?

i.e. If you couldn't sell your product to the general public, then it was not to your personal advantage to engage in mass production.

[More later on mass production, it has its own section below.]

4. Political Leverage

I only write this at this location to remind you that political leverages were only used against bringing so much to the masses at such low prices.

Governments, at least those governing the Stationers Company, ostensibly, in the true sense of the word, were to create the general welfare of that whole country, and not just the royalty, as of the Magna Carta.

Does anyone think the Gutenberg press, the steam press, or electric press or the more modern technologies of the Xerox machine and the Internet all would have had much greater impact if not for the various copyright laws, passed solely to stifle their progress?

Whether you agree that those laws were passed solely to stifle the progress of these particular inventions or not, you'll probably still have to step back and admit that they would each have had a much greater effect if the copyright laws hadn't happened just at the right time to stop them.

Does anyone really think the Gutenberg press and those various successors would not have had an even greater impact on civilization if not for some very powerful reactionary political leverage?

5. Interchangeable Parts

Obviously interchangeable parts are one of the staples of modern aspects, perhaps over the past one hundred fifty years, of industrialization.

But few acknowledge that the first interchangeable parts were the letters created by Johannes Gutenberg for his printing press.

Does anyone really think we could have had the last one hundred fifty years of bringing more and more industrialization about without interchangeable parts?

6. Mass Production

The entire concept of Industrial Revolutions is based on mass production.

The entire concept of mass production is based on the Gutenberg press.

After all, there was no mass production before the Gutenberg press.

Does anyone really think the Industrial Revolution would have happened via a thought process that did not include mass production?

These are a wide range of concepts that are very fundamental to the ideals of the Industrial Revolution, no matter how far back you go, or do not go, in your definition of the Industrial Revolution.

* * *

I challenge those who would deny the connection from the Gutenberg presses of half a millennium ago to the Industrial Revolution to come up with some other example, any other example, that provides even a reasonable fraction of these fundamental concepts for the Industrial Revolution.

I haven't even mentioned the requirement for the more literate or educated members of society that are needed to create the science and technologies, and that is no small feature of the basis for the Industrial Revolution or for the Neo-Industrial Revolution I am predicting will sweep the planet as a result of the Computer Revolution, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

The truth is that none of you would ever have heard of me if not for these aspects of the Neo-Industrial Revolution that allow me, someone without an even ordinary set of credentials, to try world tipping on the scale of some of the people I have mentioned above.

I am the first to admit that my contribution was small, just the snowball, the one that started the avalanche of eBooks you see around you today, and I have, as Isaac Newton said, "stood on the shoulders of giants" to create that little snowball, and have been helped by 40,000 volunteers and others who have created the entire eBook industry.

Yet, my purpose here is to say that this contribution will appear smaller, vastly smaller, compared to the Neo-Industrial Revolution I am predicting.

It is the first day of my sixtieth spring, and, as always, my vision is set on the future, a future I hope will make all the efforts I have described via the words above pale by comparison.

My hope is that Project Gutenberg and eBooks in general should provide the foundation for a Neo-Industrial Revolution that will make the previous few industrial revolutions pale by comparison.

Anything that can be digitized can travel across the Internet at speeds we define as instantaneous if we are on good connections, somewhat slower for those at the end of slow wires. For my own purposes, I am lucky in so far as the eBooks I have made a career of promoting travel very well over such wires and thus are even more instantaneous than other materials.

However, not only will the Internet continue to get faster, but more of an assortment of developments such as MIT's FABrication Laboratories[FABLABs] become more and more widely available, but the specifications for stuff to make with them will become more and more widely available, until you would be able to make thousands, if not millions, of things at FABLABs, all over the world, in every country, just as we do with eBooks today.

Don't believe me?

Well, you should have heard all the comments for the first seventeen years of the time I spent talking about eBooks!

Not even my best friends who helped me the most believed eBooks were going to ever get off the ground, must less fly like the Wright Brothers or like modern day airplanes.

eBooks are so commonplace today that when I do Google searches I find that I am reading a book when I don't even know it . . . it just so happened that today while I was researching the Industrial Revolution, printing presses, and the like, I ended up with my searches taking me to eBooks, without any warning whatsoever . . . until I realized there were little Google clues for the fact they were eBooks, after the fact.

Someday, nearer in the future than the first step toward eLibraries was in the past, someone will search for a part and that part will be made by MIT FABLABs or the like, and the person won't know it any more than I realized after the fact that I my hit from the Google search was an eBook.

For those who want to start the clock counting, that's about the beginning of 2040, but my own feeling is that it will happen even sooner, so much so that it might have already happened. I've heard of people making parts a person needed for a washing machine in a FABLAB in Africa(?) so all it may take to make my prediction already have come true as that the person given the part didn't know how it got there. To someone in remote Africa is UPS all that different from a FABLAB?

The point is that more and more solid three dimensional objects are going, or should I say coming, to be available via "printers," machine shops, and other devices that can make three dimensional objects from a file.

More and more of our low tech industries, not just high tech, are making a move to automated manufacturing of this nature.

Desktop 3-D printers cost less now than an IBM-AT computer did in 1984 and you don't even have to factor inflation into the equation. If you did you would perhaps get two of the 3-D printers.

The price of a FABLAB is reported to be only twice that of the IBM-AT with no inflation, or perhaps the same price without inflation. $20,000 or now perhaps $25,000, as a Google search just informed me. Cheap at the price!

Today we take using such Google searches for granted, something that quite recently didn't even exist, now it's just a minute of searching to find an exact quote on the price of something as new and complex as a FABLAB.

In the same respect, I am proud to say that the best selling book of a few years now, The Da Vinci Code, was researched extensively using eBooks from Project Gutenberg, which, as you can see, is in quite good company, listed there on the acknowledgements pages with the Louvre and Bibliotheque National and a few other prime resources.

Those who don't think things will change in the future just are not paying much attention to how things are changing right now.

The average car today has hundreds of functions carried out by computer we rarely ever consider. Our analog radios and televisions are full of stuff that comes from digital sources, though it will probably all be digitized, sooner rather than later, just so they can make a trillion literal dollars selling new devices and another trillion dollars selling you the rights to tape the shows you tape for free today.


They didn't mention that part!


I wonder why not?

If you understood the little history of publishing and copyright above it should have been obvious.

The more the publishing media can deliver to the masses, the more it will be that laws are passed to stop that same media from reaching the masses.

So it has been since the Gutenberg press, and so it shall be until/unless something even more revolutionary happens.

* * *

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