AN OFFICER of the French army was stationed in the year 1799 in a little fortress near Alexandria on the Rosetta River, which is one of the mouths of the River Nile in Egypt. He was interested in the ruins which were all about him of the ancient civilization of Egypt. He had seen the Sphinx and the Pyramids, those mysterious structures erected by men of another age. Here by the Rosetta River he found ruins of ancient temples with stiff, straight carvings of animals and people. On the columns and on loose slabs of stone which had fallen from the buildings and were buried in the mud there were queer markings which looked like writing but which no one was able to read. It fascinated him to look at this writing, which was probably thousands of years old, and to think of the people who wrote it. How little they thought that there would come a day when their temples would be in ruins and their life on earth would be so far forgotten that no one could tell what their records meant!

One day when a trench was being dug he found to his surprise a stone of black slate on which were cut letters he could read. He had studied Greek in school and knew that this was an inscription written in that language. If the black slab had had only Greek letters it would have been like hundreds of others which could be found in Greece and in other regions of the Mediterranean where there had been Greek colonies and cities. But along with the Greek letters there ran an inscription in the same kind of Egyptian letters which were carved on the ruins all about this stone. There were three kinds of writing on the stone: one set of lines in Greek, and the other two sets in characters which, while both unknown, were plainly unlike each other.

Have you ever been in a railroad station at a port where people from many lands might arrive, or in a factory where foreigners worked? If you have, you will have seen the same directions written in several languages, and you will have been able to make out from your reading of the English words some of the words in the French or German or Italian lines written below.

This young French officer had his wits about him. As soon as he saw the lines of Greek letters, below the other two inscriptions, he said to himself, "If each line should be telling the same fact in a different language, the Greek letters would give the key to what the other letters meant."

He took good care of the stone and turned it over to the scholars who were puzzling over Egyptian carvings. In 1802 a French professor by the name of Champollion began to work on the inscriptions, trying to study out by the Greek key how the Egyptian characters told the same story. Remember that this scholar did not know a single letter or word of this queer Egyptian tongue or of the picture writing which was done on a plan so different from all our modern alphabet writing.

Champollion worked for nearly twenty years on that stone. Other scholars began, worked a year or two, found out one or two letters, and gave it up. But Champollion kept right on until finally he made out its secret. In 1823 he announced to the world of scholars that he had found out what fourteen of those signs meant. Twenty years to find out what fourteen signs meant! But in finding out those fourteen puzzle signs, he had discovered the secret of Egyptian writing. He knew the principle on which the signs were built up and put together to convey certain meanings. The Rosetta stone was the key which unlocked all the written records of Egypt and made known to the world the history of a people which had lived so many thousands of years earlier that knowledge of them had disappeared from the world.

When you go to the British Museum and look at the Rosetta stone, think how it bridged a gap of five or six thousand years of time! Savage man lived, talked, ate, slept; and the record of his life perished when he and his family and friends died. The Egyptians wrote their records on the stones, and their names and history are known to us.

As writing bridges time, so it also bridges space. The Greeks sent the news of their battles by runners who carried the message to every town through which they passed. Homer’s poems were told from person to person. To-day they are printed and distributed all over the civilized world. A letter written by you to-day is read in a home one hundred miles away to-morrow. The arts of writing and printing have given man a notable power over time and space. Let us see how these arts came into being.


If an artist wanted to write a story without using any of the letters of the alphabet, he would make pictures for all his words. His story might tell of how a man went out into the forest to hunt wild animals. For "man" he would draw a picture of a man, a funny little one such as you and I used to draw when we were little. If he went to the forest by water, the artist would draw a boat with one man in it. The forest he would show by several trees. The animals he met could all be drawn, a lion, a bear, a tiger. If it rained he could draw a picture of the arch of the sky with rain falling. If he wanted to show that it was morning when something happened, he could have the sun rising. For evening he could have the sun setting. For night he could have the moon and stars. An artist could get quite a story into pictures if he set himself to it, a story which you or I could puzzle out if we worked awhile at it.

That is the way writing began. Chinese, Egyptians, Indians—all the early peoples of whom we know did picture writing. At first everyone who wanted to make a record drew his own picture to suit himself. Then there came to be standard ways to represent certain things. A lion, an eagle, the sun, rain, the sea had certain fixed pictures which everyone copied and everyone understood.

But all words cannot be pictured. Besides, it is a slow and lengthy process to draw a picture for every single word you wish to put down. So there came to be certain understood ways to shorten the picture writing. One of the things that helped in the reading of the Rosetta stone was that the name of a king was always put in a square or oblong or oval frame made by drawing a line around the signs that stood for the name. So the scholars found out that whenever in any Egyptian inscription of a certain period they saw a set of characters with a frame around them, some king or queen was being named there. Since the inscriptions of Egypt were written chiefly by order of the kings to record certain of their doings, it helped very much to be able to locate a king’s name in this way.

Another way was to use a picture for a word that had the same sound as the picture word. As an English example, when a bee was mentioned, a little bee could be drawn to show what was meant. But the same sound "be" is also a part of the verb "to be." How very simple, then, to draw a tiny bee whenever one wanted to say "I will be at the temple at sunset!" In the same way a picture of an eye could stand for the word "I."

You can see what a chance there was to have all sorts of signs and pictures in this kind of writing. Chinese picture writing, in our own time, has hundreds and thousands of different signs which stand for almost as many words or ideas.

Common people could never learn to make all the signs of one of these systems of picture writings. So there were always scribes or priests, learned men, who devoted their lives to the study of the pictures and to the writing and reading of the picture systems. Do you wonder that it took the French scholar twenty years to find out the meaning of fourteen of these picture signs which were written in an unknown tongue and had drifted far from their ancient shapes, as real pictures, into being only signs or symbols which stood to the picture writers for the whole picture? There is no prettier writing on earth than that done by picture symbols. If it is very primitive, when men really drew what they saw, it is not too hard to read. But when it gets away from the actual pictures into being a set of signs that stand for pictures, then it is very hard to decipher.

Picture Writing and the Ancestors of our Alphabet


Alphabets started with picture writing. When little children are learning their letters, we give them alphabet picture books which begin "A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cow, D is for Doll," etc. until all our twenty-six letters been shown. The Phœnician alphabet, from which our own is taken, might have been read in that way:

A is for Aleph, meaning Ox
B is for Beth, meaning House
D is for Daleth, meaning Door
J is for Jodh, meaning Hand
K is for Kaph, meaning Palm of the Hand
M is for Mem, meaning Water
N is for Nun, meaning Fish
O is for Oyin, meaning Eye
P is for Peh, meaning Mouth.

And so one might go on through all the list of characters. Only the left-hand line of letters as they are written here, A, B, D, J, K, is modern. What they would have called the letters would be "Aleph, Beth, Daleth, Jodh, Kaph," etc., which would have meant to them as they repeated them, "Ox, House, Door, Hand, Palm of the Hand." Think how queer it would be to say all those words instead of A, B, C, D, E, as we do!

It was a great moment in man’s history when instead of picture writing the idea came to some scribe or group of scribes to break up words into sounds and give names or signs for those sounds. It was a wonderful step forward. At first, as we have seen, words were words and no one had thought of splitting them up. If a word was to be written, it must have a sign all its own which pictured it. "Water" would be represented by a wavy line; "going," by a pair of legs walking in one direction; "returning," by a pair of legs walking in the other direction. Then out of the picture words came the idea of drawing the same picture for words that had the same sound but different meanings, like the insect "bee" and the verb "to be." The reader could judge from the rest of the story which meaning fitted and made sense. After that they began to put several pictures together to form long words or parts of a verb. Now they came to splitting up words into sounds and making an alphabet which would have letters that stand for those sounds. Since all words are made up of the same sounds, spelling could begin.

Probably the Egyptians had some sort of an alphabet first. But if they were ahead of the Phœnicians, they were not far ahead. The Egyptians were a stay-at-home people. The Phœnicians, you remember, were traders who went all over the world in their boats. They carried the idea of an alphabet of separate sounds and letters to the Greeks. The Greeks made up their alphabet, which some of us know, beginning, "Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta," from which we get our own word "alphabet." And at last, out of them all, came in the Middle Ages our own simple series of twenty-six letters.

The alphabet would never have become so simple and easy to read or so universal if it had not been for printing. In printing there is a standard block or letter that stands for "a," and no one can re-draw it according to his own fancy, or turn it upside-down, or add a little quirk to it.

But printing is another story!


Every once in a while someone writes a story of a Robinson Crusoe or a Swiss Family Robinson, cast off on a desert island where the people have to start life over again with none of the tools or conveniences to which they have been accustomed. They must build houses, make cooking vessels, fashion clothes, set up a sundial or a water clock for time telling, and create as nearly as they can the necessaries of life which they have hitherto been able to buy at the store around the corner. It is interesting to imagine what we should do in such a situation. But even if such a thing did happen to one of us, we should at least know what we wanted. We should also know that it could be made. Even if we did not see how to get the desired articles with the few tools and the small skill which we might happen to possess, we should have a very definite picture of them in our minds. That is why a person living in 1900 A.D. can never quite picture the state of mind of the person living in 1900 B.C. The Egyptian or the Babylonian had never dreamed of the existence of the things an American takes for granted.

Take this matter of writing as an example. Perhaps it seems odd to you that so many hundreds of years went by before any one invented a convenient alphabet such as we use to-day. But people did not write in the old days partly because they had nothing on which to write. It was along in the time of the Crusades before there was any paper in Europe. Even hand-written books of the shape we know, with leaves of paper bound together, did not exist till the Middle Ages. The book of Jesus’ time was not a book at all, but a scroll which was unrolled as it was read.

Picture writing was done on stones. The cave men drew pictures which remain to this day on the inner walls of their cave homes, where wind and rain would not deface them. On indoor walls pictures and picture writing could be painted or drawn. On outdoor walls it must be carved in the stone; hence, the many inscriptions like those of the Rosetta stone.

Then some day, some wonderful day, someone took the dried stalks of a plant and wrote a message on that. Perhaps it was a message that had to be sent very quickly and there was nothing else at hand but the dry rushes on the floor on which to write it. It may have been written with a stick dipped in water and soot from the fire. A rough message it was, no doubt; but it could be read by the person to whom it was sent, and that was what mattered. The best plant for such use was the Egyptian papyrus, a marsh plant not unlike our cat-o’-nine-tails. People cut it in thin strips, laid them close together, then laid another line of strips cross-wise, and pressed them all down together. The result was not unlike our coarse brown paper, though it was far more fragile. The writings of Egypt and other countries of the Mediterranean were done on these papyrus sheets, many of which are preserved to this day. "The remembrance of past events depends on papyrus," wrote the Roman historian, Pliny.

Then, so the story goes, a king by the name of Eumenes Second, who lived from 197 to 158 B.C. in one of the most magnificent cities of ancient days, the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor, wanted to have a library which should rival the famous library of the Ptolemies in Alexandria. Pergamum was already famous for its manufacture of tapestries and pottery and precious ointments. Eumenes wished it to be famous for its books. But he was not on good terms with his neighbor kings in Egypt, the ruling house of the Ptolemies. There had been strife between the two armies, and the King of Egypt, hearing of his neighbor’s ambition to create a fine library, chose a very simple way to stop him. He forbade the makers of papyrus rolls to sell any of them outside of Egypt, and the merchants and common people to sell even the plants of the papyrus beyond the bounds of their own country. Since the papyrus plant grew only in Egypt, it seemed as if Eumenes’s plans would be blocked.

But there was another material besides papyrus on which writing had been done. The shepherds in the hills and the merchants and even some scholars scratched their records on skins. Eumenes set about improving these rough skins so that books could be made from them. The result was parchment, first called "pergamenum," which meant "belonging to Pergamum," the city where it was manufactured. Eumenes got his library of two hundred thousand volumes or rolls written on parchment, and he made popular the parchment on which books and deeds of land were to be written for a thousand years or more. The diploma which a college student receives on the day of graduation is often called his "sheepskin" because such documents were hand written or printed on sheepskin or vellum (calfskin) or some other form of parchment for many hundreds of years.

Sheepskin, calfskin, parchment, and papyrus were all expensive. Only the most important records or messages could be written on them. Many other devices were used for the exchanges of everyday life. The Greeks carried a wax tablet which could be moistened and used again after the first message had been read and erased. Oyster shells and earthenware tablets were used by the Greeks and Romans. Then paper came.

The Arabs whose territory extended toward the Chinese Empire occupied in the year 751 A.D. a city by the name of Sanark. The Chinese attacked it but were driven back by the Arab governor. In his pursuit of the retreating army he captured certain Chinese soldiers who were skilled in the ancient Chinese art of paper making. They taught the method to their masters. It spread all over the lands ruled by the Arabs. Damascus was the great paper center. There remain to this day many Arab manuscripts of the ninth century written on paper.

The story of the spread of the art of paper making is a story of war and conquest. Through prisoners of war the Arabs learned it from the Chinese. The Arabs and the Moors took it with them when the Moors conquered Spain in the twelfth century. At the time of the second Crusade it was carried into Italy. The first European paper mill, so far as we know, was started in Fabriano, Italy, about 1150 A.D.

The story of paper is the story of the use of fiber taken from plants and trees. The Egyptians used the actual stalks of the papyrus plant, pressing them together. Paper differs from papyrus in that for paper the raw material (the fiber from the plant) is first reduced to pulp and then fashioned into a sheet of paper. The Chinese made, very early in their history, a genuine paper from the inner bark of the mulberry tree. Our own sheets of paper are made from similar fibers. Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century paper was made from the plant pulp in single sheets and by hand. A French inventor made the first machine by which it could be turned out in rolls as an endless web. The processes of paper making have been perfected in an almost miraculous manner in our own time. But paper is still made from plant fiber, in the form of rags or wood pulp, as it was made by the ancient Chinese from their mulberry fibers.

Inventions often go in pairs or in groups. The Chinese and the Arabs set the stage for the invention of printing which was to mark the change from the Middle Ages into modern times. But printing, with the revolution in life and thought which it caused all over the world, could never have come until there was paper on which books could be printed.


"Necessity," says the old proverb, "is the mother of invention." Printing was invented because books were needed. In the fifteenth century, after the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War were ended, there came a great revival of learning. In the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire much of the old learning of the Arabians and Egyptians and Babylonians, and even of the Greeks and Romans, had been lost. Now men wearied of constant wars. Scholars came out from the retreats of the monasteries. Painting, sculpture, and literature began to flourish. Universities were founded. Scholars and students desired to know what other learned men were writing and had written in times gone by. They wanted to be able to read the Bible without having to go and look at it in a church where the only hand-written copy, the product of years of labor, was so valuable that it had to be chained lest it be stolen. They wanted books. So, as has always happened in the history of the life of man on the earth, when men wanted something very, very much, there were always brilliant men of genius who found out a way to get that thing for them. That was the way the invention of printing came about.

The Romans had made type with which to stamp their coins. There had been engraved blocks of wood and steel used for stamping official documents all through the Middle Ages. There had even been a form of printing in the fourteenth century known as "xylography," from the Greek words xylon meaning "wood" and graphein, "to write." A wooden block was carved with letters or a picture and smeared with ink. Then a piece of parchment or vellum or paper was pressed on it. By this means "block books" were made where each page was printed from a single block. These were more likely to be picture books than books with close lines of letters, for pictures were easier to carve in the wood. The first book pictures were called "woodcuts" because they were made in this way.

Block printing was a slow and expensive method of producing books, since each separate page had to be hand carved. But it was quicker than writing each page by hand, since, when a block had been carved, many copies of the page could be quickly printed. Between 1440 and 1450 the idea came to cut up these blocks into tiny blocks or to make tiny blocks with a single letter apiece and set them in racks or frames in the order desired to make words. Thus was the idea of the printing press conceived and carried out. Gutenberg in Germany and Lourens Caster in Holland both printed books from movable types between 1440 and 1450. Coster was a block printer, and the books from his press which have been preserved seem to show that he did part of a page by block printing and part with his new movable type, and that he cut each letter in wood by hand. Such letters would wear out very quickly. Gutenberg, who is usually considered to have been the inventor of printing, was an engraver. He made beautiful sets of metal letters, copying the shapes of the letters from the kind of writing used by the scribes in copying manuscripts in those.days. The first book to be printed was the famous Gutenberg Bible, a wonderful volume of 1282 pages which would be a credit to any craftsman of the twentieth century.

We know very little about Gutenberg. The records of that time are very few. One of the most interesting written reports of the beginning of printing comes in a French document telling how a king wished to know more about it and probably to set up a rival press after he had discovered the secret. This record tells how on the third of October, 1458, King Charles VII of France, having found that "Sieur Gutenberg, Knight, living at Mayence, Germany, a man dexterous in engraving and in making letter punches, had brought to light an invention for printing with metal characters," sent his "Master of the Mint" to Mayence to "inform himself secretly of the invention." This shows that the fame of Gutenberg’s movable type printing had spread beyond the limits of Germany before 1458. Within twenty-five years printing centers were set up in all the leading cities of Europe.

To us who know how printing has transformed the world it is interesting to read the words of our first English printer, William Caxton, placed as a kind of personal letter to his friends at the end of the first volume which he printed. Caxton had been for thirty years English ambassador at the court of the Dukes of Burgundy at Bruges in Belgium. He had there translated one of the popular French romances of the day, which he wished to offer to his friends at home in England. The customary method would be to make himself or have several copies hand written at great expense and lent about among his friends. But Caxton did differently, though with many apologies, as you will see. The following quotation does not retain the old-style spelling which would make the words hard for a modern reader to understand.

Thus end I this book, which I have translated, after my author, as nigh as God hath given me cunning, to whom be given the praise. And as forasmuch as in the writing of the same, my pen is worn, mine hand weary and not steadfast, mine eyes dimmed with overmuch looking on white paper, and my courage not so prone and ready to labor as it hath been, and that age creepeth on me daily and feebleth all the body, and also because I have promised to diverse gentlemen and to my friends to address [to] them as hastily as I might this said book.

Therefore I have practised and learned at my great charge and dispense [expense] to ordain this said book in print after the manner and form as ye may here see, and it is not written in pen and ink as other books have been,—to the end that every man may have them at once, for all the books of this story. . . , thus imprinted as ye here see, were begun in one day and also finished in one day.

With such an apology, lest his friends think him discourteous in not having written out his book separately for each one of them, does Caxton issue the first volume from his press. But note that in spite of his apologies he cannot keep out of his modest note the wonder (which he feels sure they will share) at the speed of the printing press by means of which they could have their books "at once," since the printing of each section could be begun "and also finished in one day"! Little did those friends dream what an honor was theirs in receiving as gift copies these first volumes from Caxton’s press. Little did he dream that his name would be known and honored hundreds of years later as the first English printer, because of this art which he had "practised and learned" at such great expense. In 1476 he returned to England and, in spite of the fact that, according to his own story, age was creeping on him daily and enfeebling his body, he printed ninety-six beautiful volumes or sets of volumes before his death in 1491.

Modern Printing Press
This book was printed by such a press. Compare the complicated cogs and wheels with the extreme simplicity of the early press.


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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman