“No object has so broadly and deeply represented the capacity for humans to create, preserve and transmit knowledge, information and ideas as the book,” states the description for “The History of the Book,” an ambitious new course taught by Chinese professor Christopher Nugent and Classics professor Edan Dekel. Part of the yearlong Book Unbound initiative celebrating the dedication of Sawyer Library, the course explores “aspects of the material, social, cultural and intellectual history of the book, from the invention of the earliest writing systems through the modern development of digital media.” Here the professors share some of the most important moments.
Cyperus Papyrus, a plant native to the Nile Delta in Egypt, was the source of the writing material used widely throughout the ancient Mediterranean.
The oldest known example of alphabetic writing was carved into stone at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt.
Hot pokers pressed into the bones of animals created cracks that were interpreted by diviners. The diviners’ names, questions asked, predictions, etc., were inscribed on these “oracle bones” and are the earliest remaining examples of writing from China.
7th century BCE
The Greek lyric poet Sappho is depicted reading a papyrus scroll, the main format for books throughout ancient Greece.
7th century BCE
The inscription (shown here in a rubbing) on the mold for a ceremonial bronze vessel was imprinted using an early form of movable type made of clay.
5th-3rd century BCE
Evidence indicates that animal-fur brushes have been used for writing since Neolithic times. This is the earliest extant example of a writing brush from China, found enclosed in a bamboo case.
5th-3rd century BCE
Bamboo was a cheap, plentiful writing material used since late Neolithic times. Strips were bound together by strings of hemp or leather. It’s believed that the Chinese convention of writing in vertical columns arose because of the use of bamboo.
The rule of Emperor Qin Shihuang led to the standardization of script, weights, measures and axle lengths. It also may have led to “Qin bibliocaust,” in which he allegedly confiscated and burned the works of philosophical schools he considered dangerous to his rule.
Ink sticks were rubbed on flat ink stones and mixed with water to produce liquid ink. This one, shaped like a pine cone, comes from the Eastern Han Dynasty and was likely made with pine resin as a binder.
The codex was invented by the Romans to replace the scrolls used throughout the ancient world. Made up of sheets of writing material stacked together and bound in covers, it has remained the most widespread book format for 2,000 years.
Cai Lun (depicted in this stylized woodcut) is the eunuch traditionally credited with inventing paper. It’s now known that paper was developed centuries earlier; Cai Lun likely improved its manufacture and quality.
The chief material for medieval European manuscripts was parchment made from the skins of animals. The finest and most expensive type was vellum, made from calfskin.
Woodblock printing (text carved in reverse on wooden blocks that are inked and pressed onto paper) was developed in China, probably from carved Buddhist charms, stones and name seal “chops.”
Alcuin of York (735-804) was a scholar, teacher and abbot of the monastery at Tours in France, where he established a scriptorium during Charlemagne’s reign and ushered in the Carolingian Renaissance. Under his direction, scribes developed the script “Carolingian minuscule,” the source of lowercase forms of the Roman alphabet.
Movable typesetting was invented in China, with ceramic type arranged by rhyme. Because of the great number of characters in the Chinese alphabet, the use of movable type was limited in China until the 20th century.
This library at the Haeinsa Temple in South Korea was built to house the printing blocks for the full Tripitaka Koreana—a complete set of the scriptures of Buddhism—carved in 1251. The blocks number 81,258 in total.
Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), a German goldsmith, engraver and printer, invented a mechanical movable type system and combined it with wooden press technology to make possible the mass production of printed books in Europe.
This is the printer’s mark of Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), Venetian publisher and printer whose Aldine Press developed the first italic typefaces. His press also was the first to print books in the octavo size (similar to a modern paperback) and to edit and print scholarly editions of most of the major Greek and Roman authors.
The printer’s type case holds all the individual pieces of metal type used to set a text by hand, with small letters in the “lower” part of the case and capital letters in the “upper” part.
The Bay Psalm Book, printed in Cambridge, Mass., was the first book produced in what would become the United States. Eleven known copies remain. In 2013, one became the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction.
The Linotype machine, invented by Otto Mergenthaler, produced an entire line of metal type at once, greatly expediting the arduous process of composing and setting type by hand. It became the standard mode of typesetting for newspapers, magazines and books.
Offset printing has become the most common commercial printing technology in use. An image is inked by a modern lithographic process and then transferred from a plate to the printing surface, usually paper, which is either fed into the machine in single sheets or from a large, continuous reel.