Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 924:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 924.

Today, two women printers begin and end our season as an English colony. 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.

In the 1670s William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, wrote,

I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing [in Virginia]; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy ... and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.

There would be no printing press in Virginia until half a century after Berkeley's appalling utterance.

Settlers first came to Virginia in 1607, and they didn't print books until 123 years later -- until 1730. The Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth in 1620, and only 18 years later a woman named Mrs. Glover began printing books in Massachusetts.

The reason Virginia was so slow to take up printing was tobacco. She was England's prime supplier. England didn't want educated citizens. England wanted to feed its new habit. In 1682, the Crown flatly ordered that, in Virginia, "no person be permitted to use any press for printing upon any occasion whatever."

Not until 1730 did a Virginia governor let a printer set up shop in Williamsburg. Almost immediately a local poet published an ode in praise of the governor. The governor's name was Gooch. The poetry was wonderful 18th-century schlock:

Truth, Justice, Vertue, be persu'd
Arts flourish, Peace shall crown the Plains,
Where GOOCH administers, AUGUSTUS reigns.

Printing hadn't changed much since Gutenberg's day. It was a terribly complex technology that took enormous craftsmanship. The Williamsburg shop typically had a dozen technicians under the direction of a master printer. A sequence of twelve such masters ran the shop during the Colonial period. The seventh in that succession was a woman named Clementina Rind.

She was in charge of Williamsburg's press in 1774 -- on the eve of American Revolution. That year Thomas Jefferson fell ill and couldn't attend the first Continental Congress. So he wrote a talk to be read before the other delegates. The title was, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America."

The pamphlet radicalized the Colonial cause and stirred passions. Then Clementina Rind printed the text. Copies went to England. That pamphlet was the embryo of the Declaration of Independence. It really was the first shot fired in the Revolution.

So our story today is laced with subtle ironies. Ironies about gender and liberation -- tobacco and illiteracy. The greatest irony is that Governor Berkeley had been right all along.

Printing really did raise disobedience against the government. And God help us if we ever live in a world where that cannot happen. For the written word, paper or electronic, is the means by which ideas flow. And it is ultimately our own ideas that make of us -- a free people.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Rouse, P., Jr., The Printer in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1974 (revised from the original 1955 printing.)

See also Episode 733 about the beginnings of printing in Colonial Massachusetts.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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