WHAT DID THEY SAY IN 1490?
by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 992.
Today, we ask, "What did they say in 1490?" The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Gutenberg finished his Great
Bible in 1456, and we all know what happened next.
The new medium of print made literacy into a common
commodity. It led to modern observational science
and a new precision in thought. Print transformed
us as few if any other technologies ever have. Yet,
in the first 30 years after Gutenberg, people did
little more with his idea than to produce classical
and religious books in the same style they always
Not 'til the mid-1480s did printers start including
scientific illustrations and offering secular books
in local languages to a mass market. A revolution,
matched only by the one going on right now, began.
After 30 years with microcomputers we see only
dimly how vastly they're changing our lives.
First, computers kept track of airline tickets and
banking. By the early '80s we had word-processors.
Now mail is obsolete. Tomorrow, we'll be thinking
in ways we cannot imagine.
Thirty years after the first minicomputers we face
terrifying change. We talk around it, and we can't
see where it's going. So maybe it's time to ask,
"What were people saying in 1490?"
Printers themselves were
first to comment. In 1490, title-page information
still appeared in a note at the end of a book,
called a colophon. Some early printers expanded on
that with a more personal note. They often used
those notes to talk about how many books they could
now make and how accurately they could make them.
But that was advertising; it wasn't social
commentary. It wasn't a diagnosis of contemporary
A few German writers, fed up with the superiority
emanating from Italy, boasted about German
printers. But the closest thing to analysis of the
revolution that I've been able to find was
something Sebastian Brant wrote in 1498:
In our time, thanks to the talent and industry
of those from the Rhine, books have emerged in
lavish numbers. A book that once would've belonged
only to the rich -- nay, to a king -- can now be
seen under a modest roof ... There is nothing
nowadays that our children ... fail to know.
Brant addresses only the availability of books. He
doesn't seem to sense that the character of thought
is being changed as well.
The humanist scholar Erasmus did understand. He
used the new print medium to shape his own image as
well as to promote his ideas. He knew that print
meant much more than increased production. Finally,
in 1517, he cried out, "Immortal God, what a world
I see dawning. Why can I not be young again?"
Maybe it'll take us that long to realize that the
computer is no mere tool for speeding communication
-- that the stunning changes we're in for are ones
we don't see coming. And I find myself saying, too
bad I won't live to know what they might be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Eisenstein, E.L., The Printing Press as an
Agent of Change, Vol. I and II, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1979. See especially,
Part One, Chapter 1, The Unacknowledged Revolution.
Sparrow, A., and Perosa, J.S., Renaissance
Latin Verse, Charlotte: Univ. of North
Carolina Press, 1979, Nos. 252 and 253 (poems by
Sebastian Brant and Conradus Celtis.) (I am
grateful to Dora Pozzi, UH Classics Department, for
translating these texts.)
Pollard, A.W., An Essay on Colophons, with
Specimens and Translations, New York: B.
Jardine, L., Erasmus, Man of Letters: The
Construction of Charisma in Print,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
It is a not-insignificant footnote to this episode
that I obtained the source material for it by going
to EXLIBRIS for material. EXLIBRIS is an internet
bulletin board for Rare-Books people that uses
late-20th-century technology to share information
about books from the 15th, and other, centuries. Of
particular help have been: Gabriel Austin, New
York; Pat Bozeman and Jeff Fadell, University of
Houston; Donald Farren, Chevy Chase, MD; Stephen
Ferguson, Princeton University; Jeffrey H.
Kaimowitz, Trinity College; Luis Nadeau,
Fredericton, New Brunswick; Barney Rosenthal;
Stephen Tabor, Huntington Library; Jack C.
Thompson, Thompson Conservation Laboratory in
Portland, OR; and John Windle, antiquarian
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 216, 628,
753, 756, and 894.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.