Monday, March 13, 2006

What Did Gutenberg Invent? Typography in 3-D

Just returned from the conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Further Transactions of the Book (March 9-11).

Interior of the Folger Shakespeare Library, view of the stage.

I introduced the first panel of the conference – “What Did Gutenberg Invent? Computer Analysis of Typefonts” which turned out to be one of those conference events that one remembers. A good synergy of reasoning and play. The audience will certainly remember its immersion into the academic argument about 15th century technology by means of stereoscopic glasses .
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The panel featured Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas (two Princeton researchers) who presented their ground-breaking discovery (from 2001) about the technology of the production of the earliest printed books. According to them, "Gutenberg may have used an earlier technology that involves casting letters in molds of sand," not punches as the conventional interpretation has it. This discovery will definitely reshape how we think about the diffusion of print technology and the adoption of conventional moveable type. Their discovery has been subject of a recent BBC Open University documentary, Renaissance Secrets: What Did Gutenberg Invent?.

For me, this was exciting because I like to think about emergent technologies and about the social realms within which they get shaped into stories (and histories). This will have all kinds of implications in debunking various foundational myths if researchers continue to pursue this by means of publications and formal argument. The presentation was breath-taking and ran over time there wasn't any discussion so I think I will continue to post my musings in this blog, to make up for that.

In the introduction to the panel, I made a reference to 2003 essay on the history of European technology (and the relationship of perspective and print - Alberti and Gutenberg) by Friedrich Kittler. He quotes Hegel at the end of his article, stating that the end of art can only emerge from art itself. Apart from its informational content, self-reflexivity seemed key for this panel, as a technology of the past is re-connected to the future through visualization tool of the 1950s that was integral to understanding the connection. The whole idea of visual analysis at the basis of the computational method that Blaise has devised, and the central role of the visual in relation to print in general, seemed to provide an ironic connection of past and present. So, the subject, the object, and the method of the panel was technology. It seemed appropriate to use Hegel's statement (via Kittler) about art to say that the end of a constitutive myth of technology (or at least its re-interpretation) can itself emerge only from technology.

Another ironic connection is related to the audience (and here is where carnivalesque enters this story ) because tridimensional glasses were needed to fully understand the dimensionality of early type font. This audience participation reminded me of Boyle's air pump experiments, and at the same time recognizing Donna Haraway's trope of scientific argument in "modest witness." Far-fetched, cryptic? Well, I see connection in the recognition of conflation of the perspectives of print and visual, its connection to science and its relationship to visual argumentation (witnessing), and the general framework in which we see post-Enlightenment processes. I am also reminded at how much the nature evidence in print culture scholarship (materiality of texts) is tied to visual analysis.

So what is the invention about? For me, it is about place-value in which spatial geometry of Gutenberg's print technology is primary for an as understanding of what the innovation was all about, perhaps even more than how the type was made (of course that is important in connecting the innovation to its historical context). That is what Kittler attempts to highlight in his discussion of print and perspective. In the next post, I present a view of the implications for book history.

More about discovery at:

Donna Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997) at:


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