Digital Gutenberg
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Gutenberg, Part I and a Half

The revolution of the edition -- the possibility of transfering an idea from the one to the many -- changed dramatically between 1839 and the first part of the twentieth century. The rate of change in technology and conceptual work from Gutenberg's time to the mid-1800s had been rather slow. The automation of typesetting and real technical improvements in presses were slow to arrive. But after 1839 we see a radical acceleration on all fronts. And, I remind you here, everything that happens begins with the proliferation of ideas, which is by this time in the proportions of a plague spreading outward in every direction.

For the sake of brevity I will let a few names stand for many hundreds of names and accomplishments of this period: L.J.M. Daguerre, W.H. Fox Talbot, Eadweard Muybridge, Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas A. Edison. Or let us call them Photography, Motion Pictures, Wireless Radio, Phonographic Recording.

Each of these innovations in different ways increased the power of the edition, the reach of the edition, and, of course, fundamentally altered or enlarged the formal and contextual possibilities far beyond the printed word and the occasional illustration. And the effects are immediate, decisive, and irreversible. Almost overnight distance was abolished and the scale of human operations ceased to be local and increasingly became global. Talbot's paper negatives did for the photographic image what Gutenberg's movable metal type did for the printed page. Marconi's invention of wireless radio transformed the voice of the one into a chorus, as did Edison's phonographic recordings. And Muybridge and Edison planted the seeds for multiplying images of life in motion and also in real time.

Even the imaginative mind of H.G. Wells could take in but a fraction of comprehensive alterations to our social landscape attributable to this great burst of new possibilities. He exhausted himself trying. But if one book is to stand for the part that was his to understand it was his The Door in the Wall, a collection of short stories illustrated by the great photographic artist Alvin Langdon Coburn and set in a type that was designed especially for the book by Frederic Goudy. It was a full-scale collaboration between all parties to produce a total book reflecting the creative vigor of the times. I use it here as a metaphor for the optimism that was taking hold in the wake of so much progress.

There is far too much going on during this period for me to try to itemize even a fraction, but perhaps I can summarize it in this fashion:

In 1928, less than a hundred years after the invention of the photograph in France and England, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcast the first television image. It was not much, just the face of the cartoon character Felix the Cat. And before we had time to think what the broadcast of that primitive image might portend, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was showing us live shots broadcast from the surface of the moon. It is the case that from about 1839 every advance stimulated ten more, and those ten a hundred, and so on until we lose interest in counting. Today, of course, we are awash with so many of the elaborations, variations, and extensions of these several technologies that we simply take it all for granted, hoping that someone, someone trustworthy, has it all under control.

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