I was at a birthday party a few weeks ago – a 97th. Guessing I won’t be attending many of these, I was chatting with my mother-in-law about her memorable day, and she showed me a little book she was given by her father in the early 1930s. Called the Children’s Birthday Book it is like a perpetual diary with space for entries with a little poem for every few days of the year.
It is fair to say that the poems won’t win any literature awards, but they seem just right for the time and capture that age.
Her copy has been looked after – it is now about 90 – and although entries were not maintained throughout the years, my mother-in-law has come full circle with it, using it again and clearly treasuring it as a key to help her unlock her own memories.
My own father reached 96 and I vividly remember him telling me that one of the problems reaching that age is that you outlive almost all of your contemporaries. But, when you are a child, it is unimaginable to be thinking almost a century ahead – as this little poem from the book captures so well.
Gender stereotyping was also a somewhat unfamiliar concept in the 1930s!
The birthday book had me thinking about printing from that age and reminded me of a re-discovery I had made earlier in the summer.
I was thinking about the Gutenberg Press and turned, as usual, to that wonderful internet source, Wikipedia. (Incidentally it is easy to think of this as free because it has so much voluntary input but it takes a lot of money to keep it going. Well worth supporting financially if you value the amazing access to knowledge that Wikipedia provides.)
Anyway, back to Gutenberg and how it transformed the world.
In Germany, around 1440, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which started the Printing Revolution. Modelled on the design of existing screw presses, a single Renaissance printing press could produce up to 3,600 pages per workday, compared to 40 by hand-printing and a few by hand-copying. Gutenberg's newly devised hand mould made possible the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities. His two inventions, the hand mould and the printing press, together drastically reduced the cost of printing books and other documents in Europe, particularly for shorter print runs.
From Mainz in Germany the printing press spread within several decades to over 200 cities in a dozen European countries. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than 20 million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a press became synonymous with the enterprise of printing and lent its name to a new medium of expression and communication, "the press".
I could go down a deep rabbit hole about “the press” but I better not go there. Suffice to say that Gutenberg’s invention brought about a dramatic change in the way people lived and led to fundamental changes in how society developed.
Undoubtedly it paved the way for the Industrial Revolution and on to our ‘own time’ revolution of the digital age. I was taking advantage of this revolution, reading on my E-book about Incunabula works – pre-Gutenberg documents.
Incunabula are distinct from manuscripts, documents written by hand. Incunabula were produced early in the history of printing in Europe, before the printing press became widespread on the continent. Some authorities include block books from the same time period as incunabula, whereas others limit the term to works printed using movable type. Whatever – they are old!
"If wrinkles must be written on our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should never grow old."
- James A Garfield