Farewell Mr Gutenberg and Thanks for All the Books


Patchen Barss’ book The Erotic Engine has the subtitle “How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google”. An article on it highlights ten technologies that “secretly owe debts to the pornography business” Among them, E-commerce, Streaming video, Webcams and Bandwidth; you can read the fascinating post here. But if the Pornography industry drove forward electronic communication, it was an entirely different arena that drove the print world it is replacing.

What was it? Religion.

Yes, at one time religion was the realm of innovation and exploration. And by innovation I don’t just mean innovation of thought. The Bible, for example, was the first book to be printed using the printing press. The genius behind it was a man named Johannes Gutenberg. As a Wired.com post notes

Gutenberg made one contribution to technology in particular and to civilization in general, but it was a doozy. The printing press made the mass production of printed material possible and revolutionized human communication.

Gutenberg was born in Mainz sometime between 1394 and 1400 — his actual birth date is uncertain. A goldsmith by trade, he borrowed money from local businessmen to develop a printing press that used movable, replaceable letters made from cast metal.

Although movable type existed in China as early as the 11th century, Gutenberg’s printing press began a chain of events that altered the social and scientific history of Europe.

He first used the printing press in the 1450s to produce a two-volume folio of what is now known as the “Gutenberg Bible”. What would have taken months or years to complete by hand was now done in a fraction of the time, thanks to this new invention. In all, 180 copies of the Gutenberg Bible were produced, of which an astounding 48 still exist.

Gutenberg died on this day in 1468, but his technological impact — not only religion, but on all of life — continues.

Therefore it is particularly striking to see religion increasingly becoming the bastion of anti-intellectualism and scientific rejectionism.  As I heard first-hand in the NJ State House yesterday, the unwavering commitment to let ancient text trump current knowledge is a dangerous trend in an aspect of life that once led innovation.

It is a funny, but sad, reversal.

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.

1 Comment on "Farewell Mr Gutenberg and Thanks for All the Books"

  1. Interesting read.  Of course religion didn’t sponsor his project or it’s creation – the potential for profit did.   And he had multiple clients and the church was not even the first project using his new invention, but they certainly did keep him going (until he was sued) and they certainly were the biggest and most well-known of his clients/projects. It could also be argued that without their business he would not have been able to keep developing it and it may have taken MUCH longer for his “invention” to spread throughout the western world (there were already some more limited variations of it in China and the east).   And you larger point is still true – the church used to sponsor many forward-thinking projects – usually through some kind of patronage – and the sad truth is that most churches today are actually very conservative organizations, more interested in self-survival and continuation than anything risky or even simply forward thinking.  It’s a sad statement on our times, but true.

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