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DEAR READER: Gutenberg opened up the world

Sunday, July 7, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

COLUMBIA — The name Gutenberg translates from German to English as "goose meat."

But far from being a goose, Johannes Gutenberg gained enormous success as the inventor of movable type, and his name is cited today with awe and reverence for his invention and its continued influence almost 600 years later.

Jeff Jarvis, author of "Public Parts" and "What Would Google Do?," posits that Gutenberg is a geek of the highest order. Such is the argument presented in "Gutenberg The Geek," with the subtitle "History's First Technology Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley's Patron Saint."

Jarvis compares Gutenberg to Steve Jobs of Apple and the other high-tech innovators that have followed. Like today's exponential changes in technology, Gutenberg's "miracle of the book," as Jarvis describes it, didn't start from scratch. The Koreans had experimented with movable type in 1234, but the complexity of the alphabet made it too time-consuming to use; the scribes were faster. The Romans contributed the Latin alphabet, and the Chinese invention of paper in 105 A.D. certainly made a difference.

Still, Gutenberg had to complete a raft of trial-and-error chores before he could get around to printing his copies of the 1,282-page Bible in 1455. He needed to formulate an ink that didn't blob up or smear, find paper that absorbed the ink and that could still be easily handled and create and cut all the type blocks in all the sizes.

His beta version of his printing efforts is believed to be "Donatus Latin Grammar" that was printed in 1450. It had a squat font and crammed pages; think of those early Jobs' computers created in his father's garage in partnership with Steve Wozniak.

Jarvis credits Gutenberg with taking enormous risks fueled by vision and determination. He had to recruit a team of printers and type designers, raise capital (one of the first inventors to have investors) and set up a legal structure. (He wasn't always successful as at one point, he failed to make payments on investor's loans and lost his business. In a sly move, though, he had removed key components from his equipment so that the new owners ended up with basically useless scraps.)

He also devised "near perfect security" for his processes, as one of his few biographers Albert Kapr wrote. Gutenberg set up multiple production sites in Mainz, Germany, so that only he and a trusted cohort knew the entire process for printing.  

Beyond those life-altering processes though, the biggest change was making information more readily available to the populace. Books came to people instead of people traveling to books, usually in monasteries where most scribes worked. From there, the movable printing process — or automatic writing as some called it, eventually changed nations and cultures.

There was suddenly an outlet for original thoughts, the notion of authorship grew, authority was challenged, especially that of the Catholic Church, modern science gained more credence and made more advances as theories were shared, tested and accepted, new professions were created and the class system was undermined.

In "The Coming of the Book," Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, calculate that in the 50 years after Gutenberg's invention, 20 million books were published, more than had been copied by all the scribes in Europe during the 1,000 years before.

In the 600 years since Gutenberg's invention, the pace of changes in communications have moved forward in leaps and sudden stops — telegraph, telephone, radio, television, satellites, newspapers, magazines, novels, stage plays, religious tracts, comic books, even matchbook covers, for example. And then the computer and the World Wide Web and the Internet. The online world of communications has definitely seen faster and more changes arise than any ink-and-paper form of publishing.

This is where Jarvis makes his central argument that like Gutenberg opening the world to information, the Internet opens that world even wider than anyone had previously dreamed and with that openness comes connections. And from there, he compelling argues, there should be open access to the Internet for everyone, with a new definition of "public" and "privacy."

The world is "only at the bare beginnings of the change we will undergo," he writes.

Participants in the Show Me the Errors contest can attest to at least one recent change as a result of online publishing. Who would have thought as recently as even 10 years ago that a newspaper website would invite readers to point out errors of facts and spelling? Certainly not I.

But, here we are doing just that and having a deep sense of appreciation for the interaction with readers. So, please keep it up. If you want to join in, simply scroll to the Show Me the Errors box at the end of each article and submit any error that you might have found in that article.

For the June contest, there were five participants who submitted six suggested corrections. Rebecca Ballew, who spotted an error in a photo identification, is the winner of the monthly drawing. She will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

As another example of the changes brought about by online publication of books, Project Gutenberg offers more than 42,000 free ebooks. The website says: "choose among free epub books, free Kindle books, download them or read them online."

It's a website that most everyone can endorse — geek and not.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com.


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