Technology (23): Elizabeth Eisenstein on how the printing press created new networks and sparked further innovation

Here’s Eisenstein again. There’s a lot at work:

  • The combinatorial innovation that was the printing press created further opportunities for cross-pollination by breaking down old divisions and bringing people with previously siloed skills together consistently for the first time (a kind of ‘scenius‘);
  • New combinations and procedures created a need for new management structures…
  • … and financing…
  • … and distribution…
  • … and marketing…
  • … and new kinds of celebrity…
  • … with further technical and business model innovations driven by competition as the technology matured.

This is how innovation works.

The preparation of copy and illustrative material for printed editions … led to a rearrangement of book-making arts and routines. Not only did new skills, such as typefounding and presswork, involve veritable occupational mutations, but the production of printed books also gathered together in one place more traditional variegated skills.

In the age of scribes, book making had occurred under the diverse auspices represented by stationers and lay copyists in university towns; illuminators and miniaturists trained in special ateliers; goldsmiths and leather workers belonging to special guilds; monks and lay brothers gathered in scriptoria; royal clerks and papal secretaries working in chanceries and courts; preachers compiling books of sermons on their own; humanist poets serving as their own scribes.

The advent of printing led to the creation of a new kind of shop structure; to a regrouping which entailed closer contacts among diversely skilled workers and encouraged new forms of cross-cultural interchange. Thus it is not uncommon to find former priests among early printers or former abbots serving as editors and correctors. University professors also often served in similar capacities and thus came into closer contact with metal workers and mechanics. Other fruitful forms of collaboration brought together astronomers and engravers, physicians and painters, dissolving older divisions of intellectual labor and encouraging new ways of coordinating the work of brains, eyes, and hands.

Problems of financing the publication of the large Latin volumes that were used by late medieval faculties of theology, law, and medicine also led to the formation of partnerships that brought rich merchants and local scholars into closer contact. The new financial syndicates that were formed to provide master printers with needed labor and supplies brought together representatives of town and gown.

As the key figure around whom all arrangements revolved, the master printer himself bridged many worlds. He was responsible for obtaining money, supplies, and labor, while developing complex production schedules, coping with strikes, trying to estimate book markets, and lining up learned assistants. He had to keep on good terms with officials who provided protection and lucrative jobs, while cultivating and promoting talented authors and artists who might bring his firm profits or prestige. In those places where his enterprise prospered and he achieved a position of influence with fellow townsmen, his workshop became a veritable cultural center attracting local literati and celebrated foreigners, providing both a meeting place and message center for an expanding cosmopolitan Commonwealth of Learning.

As the prototype of the early capitalist … the printer embraced an even wider repertoire of roles. Aldus’s household in Venice, which contained some thirty members, has recently been described by Martin Lowry as an “almost incredible mixture of the sweat shop, the boarding house and the research institute.”

“For a while the trade in printed books flowed within the narrow channels of the manuscript book market. But soon the stream could no longer be contained.” New distribution outlets were located; handbills, circulars, and sales catalogues were printed; and the books themselves were carried down the Rhine, across the Elbe, west to Paris, south to Switzerland. The drive to tap markets went together with efforts to hold competitors at bay by offering better products or, at least, by printing a prospectus advertising the firm’s “more readable” texts, “more complete and better arranged” indexes, “more careful proof-reading” and editing.

As self-serving publicists, early printers issued book lists, circulars, and broadsides. They put their firm’s name, emblem, and shop address on the front page of their books. Indeed, their use of title pages entailed a significant reversal of scribal procedures; they put themselves first. Scribal colophons had come last.

They also extended their new promotional techniques to the authors and artists whose work they published, thus contributing to new forms of personal celebrity. Reckon masters and instrument makers along with professors and preachers also profited from book advertisements that spread their fame beyond shops and lecture halls. Studies concerned with the rise of a lay intelligentsia, with the new dignity assigned to artisan crafts, or with the heightened visibility achieved by the “capitalist spirit” might well devote more attention to these early practitioners of the advertising arts. Their control of a new publicity apparatus, moreover, placed early printers in an exceptional position with regard to other enterprises. They not only sought ever larger markets for their own products, but they also contributed to, and profited from, the expansion of other commercial enterprises…

Elizabeth EisensteinThe Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

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