Patterns and Printing

It was smaller than I had expected it to be. And it was in two colors which I definitely had not imagined. Encased in its Plexiglas shield, it was still magnificent. I kept staring and staring at this open page of a Gutenberg Bible. This one printed on paper was one of three at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. It was the first time I had ever seen one. Here was the first printed book, the first product of its kind. But try as we can to imagine what Gutenberg had to invent, had to go through. We describe him as creating moveable type, but he had to invent the font, learn to make molds and to find the right alloy to pour into them, then perfect that process for thousands of tiny objects. He took a wine press and converted it to print large pages, get high quality paper, develop a new kind of ink, print page after page hanging them to dry and then turning them over to print the other side, cut them apart and bound them into a great book. What an amazing task that took him nearly five years. He printed over 100 copies about a third on vellum of which 48 remain and of those the Morgan has three.  We glibly today talk about the origin of the printing press as among the greatest inventions, but we do not even try to imagine Gutenberg’s incredible invention and process.

I thought back to one I was more familiar with, for it was not too long ago that our early flat screen TV’s and monitors came out. The standard pixel count was quickly set for both at a 640 pixels per row and 480 rows, under half a million separate picture elements. We had to be tolerant of those early screens with up to five “dead” pixels in them which usually shown black in an otherwise lighted screen. The picture was not nearly of the quality of the Sony Trinitron but the set was a not lighter and thinner. This error level, about 1 per 100,000, was considered very good and non-returnable. We have come a long way in a dozen or so years. Today we are buying retina or 4K or high definition displays with more than 10 times as many pixels in the same screen sizes and no dead pixels in those screen. The screen manufacturers have perfected a remarkable printing process.

It led me to think again about Gutenberg and his Bible. For he must also have faced a similar error rate problem. He must have thrown an incredible number of pages away, burning them to warm his great warehouse where hundreds of pages at a time were hung out to dry. His Bible, nearly 1250 pages long with a little over 70 copies on paper meant he would have printed over 100,000 pages, 50,000 double-sided pages, and with two pages for each sheet, 25,000. He would have run one or more proof sheets for each page to check the type setting and the spelling against a hand written Bible. Then he would ink the type and press the sheets page after page. He began by printing each page twice to add the red rubrics to them, but he later found that doing rubrics by hand was less work.

Each line of type would have about 70 characters in Latin, separated into two columns by 42 lines per page would mean in the order of 3,000 characters per page that would have to be checked and individually changed, by over 1,000 pages, means over 3 million characters (effectively pixels). What error rate would he have tolerated?

All of this thinking and calculation leads me back to patterns and patternmaking. For whether a Gutenberg Bible or a computer screen, the technology of printing enables us to replicate things with amazingly few errors. LCD/LED displays have made portable computers and big screen TV’s cheap, plentiful, and beautiful in an amazingly short time. Gutenberg’s printing press made books cheap, plentiful, and beautiful and the too did this in a surprisingly short time. For in both cases they involve the replication of simple patterns.