The Discovery of Printing—John Gutenberg—The Revival of Invention—William Lee and his Stocking Frame—Galileo’s Telescope and Jansen’s Microscope.

IF the ancients had understood the art of printing it is more than likely that mankind would never have been forced to pass through that long and dreadful time of war and misery which we call the Middle Ages. The Egyptians and Greeks and Romans
Monk writing
A Monk writing
had many clever men, great artists, teachers, and inventors, much of whose knowledge was actually written down; but since, before the invention of printing, the only way to circulate a book was to copy it by the long and slow process of writing by hand, very few copies were made, and these only came into the possession of persons rich enough to be able to pay for the copying.

Of many books written in those days there were only one or perhaps two copies, and, when the flood of barbarism swept down upon Italy and Gaul from North Europe, the greater number were destroyed and all the knowledge contained in them was lost. The wise men and teachers were either killed or made into slaves; education, which in those days was mostly by word of mouth, ceased, and within a few generations the whole Western world dropped back into barbarism, from which it hardly began to recover until the invention of printing.

At school I was taught that printing was invented by Gutenberg at Strasburg about the year 1440, but this statement is open to much doubt. The Dutch claim that Lourens Janszoon, surnamed Coster, who lived at Haarlem, cut letters on the bark of a beech tree, and printed from them, for the amusement of children; that afterward he invented leaden letters and printing ink, and printed on sheets of paper. Then, so it is said, one of his workmen stole some of his types, and ran away to Mainz, where he opened a workshop. The facts seem to be that before Gutenberg’s time some rough attempts had been made at printing, but that Gutenberg and his associates were the first to set up a real printing press and to make books in the modern sense of the word.

John Gutenberg was a man of good family, born at Mainz about the year 1400; but having been driven out of his home, he went to live at Strasburg with Anna, his wife. He had been well educated, and took up the trade of lapidary; that is. he cut and polished precious stones. His little shop was the front room of his house, and he made a fair living.

One evening, so the story goes, he picked up a playing card and gazed at it. It must be remembered that even in those days the art of engraving was known, and the card had been made from an engraved wooden block. But it was very rough and coarse—needlessly so, it seemed to him. At any rate, he thought that he could improve upon the work, and he made the experiment. A few days later he showed his wife some cards which delighted her, for the lines were much clearer and the colors brighter than in the old ones.

His success encouraged him, and he next cut his wife’s name on a block of wood and printed it off on paper. A picture of St. Christopher hung on the wall, and he decided to copy and duplicate this. He had to make his own tools, to find the best wood from which to print, and to devise new printing ink. He did all this and so successfully that his copies of the St. Christopher were better than the original—so much better that he had no difficulty in selling a number of them. He gave one to the Abbot at the Cathedral, who in return gave him a copy of the History of St. John.

Then came to Gutenberg the great idea of making blocks of each page and so printing many copies of this book. With the aid of three apprentices he undertook this tremendous task and completed it. He sold a few copies, but not many. In those days not many could read, and there was no great demand for books. He went to his friend the Abbot and told him what he had done, and the Abbot suggested that he should print copies of the Bible.

But when Gutenberg examined a copy which the Abbot had given him he found that there were no fewer than seven hundred pages, and that it would take him nearly thirty years to make blocks of them all. At first he was in despair, but, after thinking the matter over, he at last hit upon the idea of cutting out separate letters on small blocks of wood, and in a little time he had a real "fount" of type.

It was a wonderful advance; but even now his troubles were not ended, for it was difficult to hold the letters in position in the lines of type. He tried thread, he tried wire, but neither would work. Then at last the idea came to him of a kind of frame made something after the principle of a wine press. And so the type was properly set, and the first printed Bible was issued.

But again very few were sold; the apprentices were disappointed, and one broke his oath and told others of the secret process. And so Gutenberg took the bold step of breaking up all his type, for he vowed that he would not be robbed of the fruits of his invention. He and his wife then went back to Mainz, where his brother Friele was still living.

The brother, a good fellow, introduced John to a rich goldsmith named Faust, who promised to provide money for a new printing works. Work started again, but now Gutenberg found that the ink softened the wooden letters so that they lost their shape. Again he set his brains to work, and once more perseverance conquered difficulties. He cut type out of metal, and began to print the Bible. But the sales were still small; and Faust, having spent four thousand florins, became impatient and suddenly demanded that John Gutenberg should pay up. Since the poor fellow had not the money, Faust seized the types and presses and turned John out to starve.

Friele, however, again came to his brother’s help, and later the Elector Adolphus of Nassau gave John a comfortable home in his old age, so that at any rate he did not die of starvation, as was the fate of so many of the early inventors

Faust and a man named Schoeffer continued the printing, and brought out several editions of the Bible. Presses were set up in Hamburg, Cologne, and elsewhere, also in Florence and Venice. In Italy alone nearly thirteen hundred books were printed between 1480 and 1490, and so rapidly did the new invention now spread that by the year 1500 there were more than one hundred and thirty printing presses at work in Europe.

The man who brought the art to England was William Caxton. He learned it while traveling in Germany, and when he reached home set up a press at Westminster in the year 1476. Some history books tell you that the press was set up in Westminster Abbey, but this is absurd. The press was in the "precincts" of the Abbey, a very different thing. Presses were soon set up at Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, and printing flourished mightily until the year 1530.

15th century printer's shop
A printer's shop of the 15th century

Then, when many men had learned to read, the Government suddenly got frightened, and started a censorship for the purpose of deciding what should or should not be printed. Needless to say, very little that was not agreeable to the authorities was allowed to pass into print. Printers who disobeyed the censorship were tortured by the abominable Star Chamber, and this persecution went on in England for more than one hundred and fifty years. It was the last gasp of the black horror of the Middle Ages. In 1694 the censorship was abolished, and soon the English people became the best printers in the world. To-day nearly three quarters of all the newspapers in existence are printed in English.

Invention which had been dead for centuries, began to revive at or a little
Caxton's printing
A specimen of Caxton's printing (reduced)
before the date of the invention of printing. At the time of the Norman Conquest and for a long time afterward, even the king and his nobles lived in a state of squalor and discomfort which the poorest person of modern times would resent. There was no glass in the windows of their houses, there were no carpets or rugs on the floors.. The clay or stone floors were strewn with rushes or straw and were filthy beyond words. Even the greatest castles swarmed with vermin such as we do not mention in polite society.
Caxton's house
Caxton's house at Westminster

The only plates or dishes were of pewter, and only rich people could afford such. There were no forks or spoons. The smoking joint was passed round on a spit, and each person hacked off what he required with his knife and laid it on a cake of bread in front of him. The diners drank their sour beer out of a horn or pewter cup.

The beds were dreadful, being merely sacks stuffed with straw. The richer classes used coarse blankets, but sheets or night garments of any sort were unknown. There were no conveniences for washing. Indeed, few people bothered much about washing, for soap, I need hardly say, was as unknown as tooth powder

Old or delicate people suffered severely with cold in winter, for the only fire was in the great hall of the castle; and since the only chimney was a hole in the roof, stinging, choking wood smoke filled the place. Nor were the clothes of those days calculated to keep their wearers warm. Undergarments, even for the few who could afford them, were made of coarse, hard wool, and socks and stockings were still inventions of the far future. Food was scarce and very bad. The bread eaten even by the rich folk was almost black, and there were practically no vegetables. Having very little feed with which to supply beasts under cover during the winter, it was the custom to kill nearly all the sheep and oxen in the autumn and salt their flesh. A diet of salt meat and bread without green stuff produced scurvy, which, since there were no doctors, killed more people during the Middle Ages than even the Black Plague or typhus.

Outside the house the state of things was equally hopeless. There were no roads, no carriages. Coaches were sternly forbidden, the idea being that if the nobility gave up riding on horseback they would become indolent and unfit for fighting. In the towns the streets were little better than open sewers. It was not until the year 1417 that any of the streets even in London were paved, while so late as 1605 many streets were still nothing but mire in which the wretched foot passenger might sink to his knees.

As wealth increased—above all, as the endless fighting ceased, and people began to have some sense of security— they soon tired of these horrible conditions, and set to mend them by importing from other countries articles of use and luxury. Carpets were brought from the East; glass from Italy and France. In England there were no glass factories until about 1550. Soap, which was well known to the Romans, was reintroduced. About the end of the fifteenth century, forks, which had come into use in Italy, were introduced into England. These, and many other importations, set English brains to work in copying them, and so gradually the standard of living was raised, and there came about a great revival.

Even so, such things as were made were almost all made by hand. The only machinery in England before the sixteenth century was driven by water or wind. The Romans established mills for grinding corn in England some eighteen hundred years ago, and a pair of old Roman millstones was found at Adel in Yorkshire. The first windmill of which we have any record was built in Venice in the year 1332 by Bartolomeo Verde. In places where there was no water power, grinding mills were sometimes driven by cattle or by man power.

For clothing, silks and velvets were purchased abroad, and such garments as stockings were invented. But even Queen Elizabeth herself, when she first came to the throne, wore stockings made of pieces of silk sewn together, for there were still no such things as woven stockings. I may mention that the "clocks" which still ornament stockings were originally put on for the purpose of hiding the ugly seams up the sides.

Speaking of stockings brings us to the story of a very plucky and clever Englishman, the Rev. William Lee, the inventor of the stocking frame. Lee, who lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth, was in love with a girl who, when he went to call upon her, was always busy knitting woolen stockings—so busy that she would not speak to him, and would pay no attention to his pretty speeches. The young curate put up with this treatment for a long time, but at last got disgusted—"fed up", we should call it—and made the odd vow that he would do by machinery what she could do only by hand.

Once he started to invent a stocking frame he became so interested that he forgot everything else. He even gave up his living. The girl was now sorry she had treated him so badly, and did her best to persuade him to go back to his church. But he flatly refused, and, working almost day and night for three years, at last perfected the world’s first stocking frame.

In high delight he posted off from Nottingham to London to show his wonderful invention to the Queen, and ask for a patent—that is, a monopoly—for his new frame. The Queen shook her head. "Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings I should have been justified in granting him a patent," she said; "but a monopoly of making woollen stockings for the whole of my subjects would interfere with the means of subsistence of many poor people who knit for a livelihood."

Poor Lee was very much dismayed, but he did not give up hope. He found a friend in Lord Hunsdon, who bound his son, who was a knight, as apprentice to Lee. So the first machine stocking-maker’s apprentice was a titled person and even of the blood royal.

Lee then set himself to invent a machine to make silk stockings, and in 1595 completed a machine which had twenty needles instead of eight, as in his first frame. Again he went to the Queen, and again he was turned away. Still he kept up his heart. His apprentices thought it so high an honor to work for him that each wore a needle with a silver shaft slung round his neck with a silver chain. Then Lord Hunsdon died and a little later his son also. Lee, almost ruined, went to France, where the king, Henry IV, was interested in his new invention, and helped him to set up a factory. Before it was finished the king was murdered, and the unfortunate Lee gave up hope and died at Rouen in 1610.

The way of the inventor has never been easy, but in those earlier days it was desperately difficult. People, even of the upper classes, were so ignorant and so prejudiced that the inventor, far from making a fortune, was usually lucky if he escaped with his life. A notable example is that of Galileo, the inventor of the telescope.

Astronomy, or the study of the stars, is a very old science. Aristarchus, the great Greek astronomer, knew that the earth was round and revolved round the sun. This knowledge was so completely forgotten that when Copernicus revived it, seventeen centuries later, he was abused by every one and denounced by Luther as an "arrogant fool."

Galileo was born in the Italian city of Pisa in the year 1564, and from the first showed that he was far ahead of his age. It was at that time believed that a body weighing one hundred pounds would fall one hundred times as fast as one weighing only one pound. Galileo declared that this was nonsense, and proved it by dropping a half-pound weight and a hundred-pound cannonball from the top of the famous leaning tower. Both, of course, reached the pavement at the same time.

But if you suppose that this brought him fame or popularity you are much mistaken. The people vowed that he was a magician, and even the students hissed him. He shook off the dust of Pisa and went to Padua, where he invented his famous telescope. The first telescope was a rude instrument formed by placing lenses in a leaden tube, but very soon he had a telescope which magnified nearly a thousand times and brought distant objects thirty times nearer. The first things he discovered were the mountains on the moon, and soon afterward he saw the moons of Jupiter. Then he discovered sunspots. Filled with wonder and delight he began to tell the world of these marvels. At once the Inquisition stepped in. The sale of his book was forbidden, and a commission was appointed to bring charges against him. The commission reported that the astronomer had disobeyed the teachings of the Church by maintaining that the earth moves and the sun is stationary; and that he had wrongly declared that the movements of the tides were due to the movement of the earth round the sun. Also, that he had failed to give up these beliefs, although commanded to do so. When he still refused to be silent, Galileo, then nearly seventy years old, was dragged off to Rome and threatened with torture if he did not recant. Can any one blame him that he did so? In himself he knew that the truth could not be stifled, and he was right, for the new knowledge spread all over Europe and did much to disperse the black ignorance and superstitions of the past centuries.1

If the telescope enables us to study infinitely distant objects, the microscope is almost more important in that it permits us to see and study things so tiny that the strongest eye unaided can make nothing of them. Without the microscope, invention must have long ago come to a standstill and medicine would be still in its infancy. Doctors would know nothing of the germs that are now recognized as the causes of infectious diseases; scientists would remain ignorant of ferments such as yeast; metallurgists would have no means of studying the structure of metals, while natural historians would be without the instrument most valuable in their researches. I mention the microscope here because the first was made by a Dutchman named Cornelius Jansen during Galileo’s lifetime, about the year 1590.

The first microscope was a poor thing, for it distorted objects placed under it. The world had to wait nearly a hundred and fifty years before the invention of the achromatic lens by Chestermoor Hall saw the beginning of a new era for the uses of the microscope.

It was the microscope which enabled Malpighi to discover, in the year 1661, the hairlike veins of the human body known as the capillaries. The great William Harvey had already, in 1628, discovered how the blood circulates through the body.

The seventeenth century saw a great revival in invention, and one of the greatest inventors of that period was an Englishman, the Marquis of Worcester, who wrote "The Century of Inventions", and who himself was responsible for over one hundred different inventions, among others a steam apparatus which could raise a column of water to a height of forty feet. The Marquis was indeed the first inventor of the steam engine, although he probably had no idea of the enormous value of his discovery to those who were to come after him.

If you will take the trouble to read the famous "Century of Inventions", you will at once be struck with the fact that the Marquis was tremendously ahead of his time. For instance, he speaks of a way "to make a ship not possible to be sunk though shot at a hundred times between wind and water by cannon." The Marquis discovered the principle of watertight compartments, though it was not until two centuries later that his idea was put into practice. To-day not only warships but all large vessels are built with watertight compartments.

The same inventor had an idea for driving ships by paddles worked by a windmill on the deck. He invented a portable bridge, a canal lock, a pistol which would discharge a dozen times with one loading, or, in other words, a seventeenth-century revolver. He tried his hand at a flying machine, and even had an idea for a world language, a sort of early Esperanto.

1For other interesting references to Galileo see "The Book of the Heavens", chaps. ii, ix, and x.
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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman