First off, I know what happened over the weekend. We’re in Libya now. I hope this goes as well as it can for all involved. Sometimes things get bad. Sometimes they get really bad. And sometimes they get worse. They get so much worse. But then sometimes they get better. It takes a whole lot of work. It takes determination and faith and a willingness to not give up hope. But hopefully someday it works out.

 

It might be a kind of naive thing to think, but I feel like if we give up hope we fall. So my thoughts are with the people of Libya, and with the service members participating in the operation there.

 

I know that in light of this acknowledgement the things I am about to discuss may seem like piffle. And perhaps they are. But this piffle is what I have to offer and I feel a responsibility to put it out there. I throw my piffle on the huge pile of piffle and perhaps someone will be able to connect dots later on and de-piff the thing.

 

So J was looking at Japanese woodblock prints today and we started talking about them and the theory of printing when I realized that I was talking out of my ass and getting a little overreaching on my guesses about how it would work. So I went ahead and started poking around to learn a little about how it all works and instead tripped over the story of printing.

 

Wow.

 

Here’s my version of the story- I’ll bet yours is similar. Gutenberg invented the printing press a few hundred years ago. He printed The Bible with it to show that it was awesome and good for printing the unfiltered word of God and not for printing dirty jokes or television listings. Soon everyone was reading The Bible and the schism with the Protestants and the Catholics and people kept on printing and Thomas Paine and some other bit and then Silly Putty on the comics page and whatever.

 

Well get this- Gutenberg got his press going in the 1450s, alright. But the Bible wasn’t the first thing he printed. And it’s not like he invented the press and started cranking out bibles. Something I try to keep in mind when I read any of this stuff is all the millions of forgotten people in history. Johann was a metal worker who caught wind of some of the developments going on with this printing technology that was being developed. But before the printing thing took off he and a few guys had a racket going on in the mirror trade. They’d make these awesome mirrors and then hold them up to holy relics and then try and sell them as some sort of miracle mirrors, imbued with the power of whatever relic they had reflected- like some sort of homeopathic hologram but without lasers or seeing the relic even. The religious market was a big one. People who had the means would travel to holy sites and (then as now, because people don’t change all that much) they’d want some sort of souvenir. Mirrors were something of a luxury item anyway, so why not try and jazz them up a bit? Anyway, that’s what he was up to before he strode out onto history’s stage. I offer that bit of trivia not as an explanation of his process, but more to fill him out a little bit. So in 1450 he and a few of his cohorts got a proof of concept movable type press cobbled together and printed a poem. I’m sure he shopped it around a bit and got what we would have no problem calling seed money from a local banker. Five years later he’s knocking out something with a guaranteed market- the Holy Bible. It’s a really interesting story, but it has about jack to do with the Japanese and their woodblock printing process. See, seven hundred years before that the Empress Shotuku (of Japan, natch) wanted to express her thanks to the heavens for her survival of an attempted rebellion. So she commissioned a gift that involved a million little pagodas to go to temples all over Japan. Each of these pagodas had a little scroll in it. And the text on those scrolls was printed. Now I don’t know about you, but I suspect that this idea didn’t occur in a vacuum.

 

(I’m going to confess to a lack of academic rigor here. Most of this is coming from Wikipedia, because I’m trying to strike while the iron is hot. Given time we can suss this all out, but for now I beg your understanding if I cut some corners here and there.)

 

So the Empress orders up a print run of a million scrolls to be distributed to Buddhist temples all over Japan. Prayer scrolls for the people who could read them- an expensive, high tech gift for people with the training to make use of them. Pretty cool, if you ask me. Monks and nobility being the only real market for this product, there wasn’t much of a business case for printing much more than prayer scrolls and mandalas and such. That meant that the work of printing was rather rarified stuff- the work of dedicated artisans passing along some serious knowledge. It took about five hundred years, but these presses spread across the country and the process was slowly but surely evolving. Whatever progress was being made in inks and papers and mechanisms, printing was still being done with full page presses. A monk, or probably a team of monks, would take a slab of wood and carve out a negative image with pictures and lettering and all and press it down on a piece of paper. This may seem inefficient, but history didn’t seem to care. This is how printing was done for close to a thousand years. Go ahead and take that in.

 

And then let’s skip a little bit, because this next part is pretty cool.

 

In 1590 (almost a century and half after Gutenberg) things had finally gotten to the point where it was time for a work for the masses. There were print shops dotted here and there. There was a growing market of people who had picked up a little bit of reading and writing. Not being restricted to prayers for monks, now our printers could try to tap a different market- business users and bureaucrats. A parallel could probably be drawn between this situation and the spread of mainframes from campuses to the business market. I’m not ready to hash that one out yet, but I can definitely feel it. Anyway, a Japanese-Chinese dictionary was probably not fascinating reading, but for those Japanese who had been trained in the tech and were in contact with Chinese speakers, this would be a rather useful thing to have access to. As I’m sure you can imagine, it sold pretty well. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu (a mover and shaker working his way up the chain) funded some serious development of the technology so that he could use it to print historical and military texts. This part might not seem all that interesting or relevant to Herr Johann, being so much later, but for one thing- the Japanese had seen western presses and didn’t think much of them.
See, Jesuit missionaries had set up a press in Nagasaki in 1590. I’m sure they thought the Japanese were going to be pretty impressed with their hardware, but it doesn’t seem that they were. Maybe it was the lack of home court advantage, maybe the Jesuits just couldn’t get the mindshare needed to light a fire what with their funny language and funny clothes and funny religion. Whatever the case, they weren’t really clicking with the local market. Three years later,¬†Toyotomi Hideyoshi came back from a little misadventure in Korea with a Korean press and moveable type set. (Evidently the Koreans had been dabbling in this stuff for some time as well.) This was the thing that caught Ieyasu’s eye. He bankrolled a 100,000 piece set of Japanese characters and then things started moving along.

 

I could go on and on about all this. Eventually art prints and the spread of literacy through the populace. Playing cards and Nintendo. Shonen Jump and The Matrix. A calendar with woodblock prints that leads to finding out that Gutenberg wasn’t above a little bit of scammery. A good idea can live for a very long time and evolve in surprising ways. Look at the world around you and know that every single thing you see is composed of atoms that are older than you can understand.

 

This whole situation is awesome.