From the Printing Press to the 3D Printer



“Incipit epistola sancti iberonimi ad paulinum presbiterum de omnibus divine historie libris. Capitulit pimu.”

Introduction. The letter of Saint Jerome to Paulinus. Priest of all divine history books – First chapter.

So begins the first version of the Gutenberg Bible, not with the famous words “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram” (In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth), but with a quick introduction to a letter written by a 4th century scholar encouraging the study of the scriptures as the root of wisdom. While Gutenberg’s Bible would not be the first thing he ever mass printed, it would become the symbol of something new within the history of humanity – the ability to mass produce and distribute ideas.

Many people have answered the question, “Why are humans uniquely us” by pointing out that we are alone among the animals in our ability to not only come up with complex ideas, but our ability to pass them on to others. Certainly there are animals that can communicate. The waggle dance of the honey bee can communicate where to find pollen to the hive. Prairie dogs are able to not just warn one another of predators, but specifically communicate what predators are approaching, where they are, and how best to escape. Most tellingly, Bottlenose Dolphins are known to communicate not just where they are, but who they are, using unique, recognizable names.

But prairie dogs cannot develop the arch as a means to create more secure burrows, and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to tell other prairie dogs how to make one across time and distance. Humanity, however, has been able to communicate complex ideas verbally for at least 60,000 years and possibly as many as 500,000. Writing has allowed humanity to transmit these ideas across time and distance for around 6,000 years. But it took Gutenberg to mass produce our complex system for transmitting ideas.

Movable type had existed in China 400 years before Gutenberg. However, the vast number of Chinese characters rendered movable type printing a very complex undertaking that saw limited use. Further, the materials used were short lived, leaving the printing process prohibitively expensive. The alphabet of Western Europe, however, was exceedingly simple. Gutenberg could generate large sets of the few characters used, created out of enduring metal, put together in a mechanical press, and using a longer lasting ink to produce large amounts of text on the cheap. By 1500 Venice alone had over 400 printers. Italy was poised to begin the literacy-driven Renaissance.

The next big revolution in the transmission of ideas across time and distance would not come until 1844. In that year Richard March How patented a printing machine that used rotary cylinders to bring printing into the industrialized factory system. The old printing press still required that printers manually add ink and paper and hand crank the press for each individual page. How’s system automated that system, allowing giant rolls of paper to be run through the machine in a very short period of time. Larger books could now be printed in larger numbers in shorter times for lower costs. Books went from a firmly middle and upper class past-time to the dime-novel habit of the poor by the 1860s.

While these inventions were certainly bringing the mass distribution of ideas to the masses, the decision of who chose which ideas were printed remained firmly in the hands of those who controlled a press. This all changed when a patent attorney named Chester Carlson found all of the hand copying he was doing at his job bad for his arthritis. In 1938 he patented a process that, while underdeveloped, would lead to the modern copier. It would take years of further experimentation with his photoconductive process to produce a working machine, but in 1949 Xerox was selling machines that could take an original copy of a document and mass produce duplicates quickly and efficiently. Initially used in offices to make duplicates of important documents, it soon became a means where anyone could print copies of their own work quickly and easily, without having to approach an expensive print shop. Mass production and distribution of ideas became the province of the masses.

With the advent of the Internet the ability of humanity to spread its ideas widely was completely divorced from the need for any physical format. Ink and paper were no longer a factor in the cost of distributing ideas far and wide. More, the ability of the Internet to allow synchronous and asynchronous communication across distances meant that the information was there whenever and wherever it was needed and not dependent on delivery or lost to a lack of real time recording methods. The world was literally an e-mail away.

In all of these developments one can see a natural development and refinement. We have gone from the ability of using movable type to print books quickly and cheaply to the ability of average individuals to spread their ideas utilizing e-mail and websites. We stand on a new revolution in our ability to transmit ideas across time and space. Just as movable type gave us the printing press, the Internet has given us the 3D printer.

In all of our long history of transmitting ideas across time and space one thing has been missing. A letter could be written describing the wonders of a new arch as a means to shore up tunnels. A book could be written on its principles. Plans could be printed out on mass for people to study and learn from. But the arch itself could not be transmitted.

In 1986, 3D Systems began exploring the technology to create 3D printers. They quickly partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the 1990s had patented designs that would allow a printer to produce three dimensional objects using extruded materials like ink. When these printers first began to be hooked up to the Internet it meant that individuals with an idea for a physical object were no longer limited to sending plans, photos, and descriptions of it to other people across time and space. Instead a simple computer command meant that they could print the object out at a distance somewhat removed from their location. No longer is it only the description that is being sent, it is the object itself. So important is this revolution in how we transfer ideas that when asked to describe the most important developments in human history, Norwich University placed the 3D printer as the culmination of all of our technologies.


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