Type Moving at the Speed of Your Fingers

Last summer, I spent a few days in Munich. My husband, a historian, insisted that we visit the Deutsches Museum (German Museum). We both assumed it would contain exhibits explaining the history of Germany. I agreed to the visit only in exchange for another afternoon in a museum of fine arts.

Gutenberg Positive

Johannes Gutenberg. It’s hard to believe his beard wouldn’t get caught in a printing press …

To my surprise, the museum turned out to be the world’s largest museum of science and technology, and I could have spent far more time there than we had allocated. Having worked in publishing for so long, I really enjoyed the exhibit on papermaking and print technology. While the first movable printing press technology was invented in China around the year 1000, we are generally familiar only with the improved technology created by the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. According to the museum literature, Gutenberg’s invention of letterpress printing around 1445 “was the technical prerequisite which made books accessible to a larger audience, accounted for the rise of newspapers and periodicals, and generally brought about a much wider dissemination of the written word than ever before. Hardly any other invention has exercised such a great influence on civilization and society.” Now that’s a great invention!

In other words, we owe the access to information (and learning) that we are used to today to that technology nearly 600 years ago. I feel lucky that books have always been important in my life. As I am writing this, I am sitting in my in-laws’ living room, enjoying in front of me a wall of books with fancy bindings and gold lettering. If I were to pull any of those books off the shelf, I’m sure they would smell old (see “The Smell of Books”). In between those covers we’d find a lot of “classics.”


Let’s not forget that movable type had to be set as a mirror image. And so did all the images.

On one of the shelves, there is a sequence of books that is clearly a set of encyclopedias. It takes up about a yard of shelf space and represents a person’s general knowledge base in 1967 and was, by its own definition, “the starting place for all searches” then. Today, the starting point of all searches is a search engine. In a time where “google” has become a verb and we are connected to the Internet 24/7, it is hard to imaging that all the information we desired has not always been available literally at our finger tips.

With the introduction of the personal computer what used to be a highly specialized skill has become something anybody with a computer can learn to do. Desktop publishing has made printing and designing easier and more affordable. Gutenberg’s “movable type” is moving at the speed of one’s fingers on a keyboard now. I think he’d love it if he could see us today. I wonder what his blog would contain.

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