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Cultural icons

Going from Gutenberg to modern-day publishing

If it was indeed the case that Johannes Gutenberg’s humble printing press was a major cultural development of the last millennium—as I suggested in WORLD’s last issue (May 8)—it seems appropriate to ask as a follow-up: What icons might future historians look back on and identify as similarly significant?

I’d like to suggest several such “markers,” but I must first confess how much my lifelong involvement in publishing shapes my perspective. Three times in my life I’ve enjoyed hands-on involvement in the operation of a Gutenberg-style printing press. So it was altogether natural for me, when Time magazine’s editors in 1999 chose Gutenberg as their “Man of the Millennium,” to say, “Right on!” They were speaking my language.

So no one should be surprised that my first choice is the Linotype machine. The common use of movable type was the great victory of Gutenberg’s era. But who would find a way to automate—probably from a keyboard—the orderly assembling of those millions of pieces of type? Through the centuries, many would try.

Credit for that success belongs to Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German watchmaker who lived in Baltimore—and his invention (1884) was both a technical and a cultural marvel. Mergenthaler is reported to have said his goal was a machine that would never wear out and would never be improved upon. Thomas Edison called Mergenthaler’s invention “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

What other inventions has our sovereign God chosen to bring more extensive change?

Well over a century later, a few of Mergenthaler’s early models are still operative—and if you ever get a chance to watch it happen, don’t pass it up. But don’t get too close to the pot of molten lead waiting to be shaped into sentences and paragraphs, one “line of type” at a time!

The Linotype’s most profound impact was on the newspapers, magazines, and books of the day. A daily newspaper’s front page, pre-Linotype, required as many as a dozen skilled typesetters. With the Linotype, that typically dropped to just one or two. Printing costs were dramatically reduced, and libraries flourished around the world.

While it took more than four centuries to get from Gutenberg’s press to Mergenthaler’s typesetter, my next culture changer showed up just 100 years later: the tiny tabletop personal Apple computer known as the Macintosh. Yes, there were dozens of other candidates seeking the public’s approval for everything from word processing to managing the family’s picture album, from keeping an eye on the church budget to organizing your family’s recipes. All this, keep in mind, was pre-internet. Folks weren’t familiar yet with the PC world. We needed some patient help—and Apple’s Macintosh gained a reputation for making things simple.

More specifically, the Mac led us in moving from a screenful of numeric formulas to the welcome concept of WYSIWYG. Very simply, WYSIWYG was the reminder that “What you see is what you get.” There’s no need to interpret anything. Before, each font or size of type was described by a number. It was the same for every picture, or any aspect of layout. But with the Mac, the design and size of what you saw on the computer’s screen was exactly what your printer produced. Well, usually.

It was a profound change in thinking. Especially for students and tens of thousands of people in creative vocations, the Mac became the standard. That’s the gist of my argument that the Macintosh deserves to be seen as a standout icon of cultural change.

But there’s more—and too much to expand on here. The newest icon, by almost anyone’s telling, is the relatively tiny cell phone. What other invention has our creative and sovereign God chosen in our current culture to bring more extensive change? We may visit that discussion in future issues.

In the meantime, you may have your own insights on the matter. Your life experience may prompt you to suggest quite different candidates for the role of symbolizing such societal change. I’d love to hear from you—and especially if your letter is 100 words or less and arrives on a Gutenberg press.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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While the mechanical printing press was first dedicated to the “Truth”. In Genesis 3:5, the “Lie”, “You will be like God” was delivered by voice, the only media at the time.
You mentioned the Mac and WYSIWYG, another form that was still, at that time, using the, very expensive, printing press, radio, or TV, for mass reproduction. Enter the internet and the price of publishing went to zero. In 1964 Paul Simon wrote “The Sound of Silence”, which prophetically introduced the “neon god they made”. The problem: Which source can you trust? Go back to Gutenberg, and his God.