Traces of History

30 Mar
A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas' Ransom Center

A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center

Last weekend I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I only knew it was a Gutenberg Bible because a placard told me so. Otherwise, it bore no signal of its importance. Just looking at its pages gave me no sign that it was one of the first substantial books ever printed with moveable type.

Last weekend I also saw what’s called the “first photograph.” It was barely visible, the actual image faded since its production over 180 years ago. I only knew it was the so-called first photograph because it was in a special exhibit with information cards that told me all about it. Otherwise, it just looked like a reflective surface in a decorative frame.

Sometimes, historical things just look like things. To the naked eye, neither of these objects looked particularly important. Sure, they looked old. But there are lots of old things out there, and only some are bestowed with a particularly significant meaning. For all the old books out there, a very small fraction are protected by layers of glass and temperature-controlled technology. To really appreciate these sorts of objects, you have to think about what they mean, not just what they look like. We’re quite used to books and photographs in today’s world, so why should an old book or photo catch our eye?

With all the books around us today, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, the Gutenberg Bible was proof of astounding innovation. Moveable type, and the inventions that followed, made it possible for more people to have more books. It improved literacy, and changed the future of education. It changed how stories were passed down between generations.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

Looking at the Gutenberg Bible, it sure didn’t look like much. But when you take a couple of steps back in your head, and think about what that book means  – it’s hard to not feel a sense of awe. That book represents so many changes to society, and so much wonder. The mere fact that the book was printed so long ago in 1454 or 1455 makes it pretty impressive. Then add on the layer that it took 3-5 years to print this single copy. Then the fact that there’s only 21 complete copies around today. Suddenly the book feels much more meaningful. Then take another few steps back, and reflect on how much this book changed society, forever. And suddenly, that weathered, leather-bound book in front of you shouts “revolution!” from its pages.

In 500 years, maybe someone will stand in front of a glass-protected copy of one of the first things produced by a 3D printer. And perhaps there will be placards explaining how the 3D printer worked, and why it changed society. Maybe there will be stories about 3D printers bringing clothes and food and medicine to the masses, improving health and nutrition all over the world. And a 20-something girl will find herself staring at the printer, wondering what it must have been like to live in an age where the mere act of instantaneous object-printing was something to celebrate. And she’ll take a step back, reflect a bit, and think about the traces of history before her eyes.

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