Memory, Reading, Writing and Printing in the History of Information

The basic issues of information creation, distribution and storage have always been central to the history of information. Before writing existed information was stored in human memory and passed from generation to generation by the oral tradition. Later, after writing was invented, information was recorded on clay cuneiform tablets with a stylus, and carved into stone or written on wood or papyrus, and later vellum, and paper. With writing came reading and issues of literacy. Much later printing was invented in China, and about one thousand years later printing spread to the West. Each of these generalizations is the subject of Themes and multiple entries in HistoryofInformation

When my wife Trish and I were in China with members of The Grolier Club a few years ago we witnessed the hand printing of books from woodblocks, a process invented in China about 1800 years ago. Printing books by hand from woodblocks, when done by an experienced skilled worker, may not be that much slower than printing books on a hand press at 200 to 250 sheets per hour. This hand printing process from woodblocks is practiced as an art in China much like printing from metal type on a hand press is practiced in the West today.

As I think about these issues--memory, reading, writing, and printing--as means of information creation, distribution, and storage, I think it is worthwhile to recognize that they are as current today in the world of digital information as they were hundreds of years ago, with issues of the ever-growing demand for electronic memories, optical character recognition, AI analysis of images, humans reading on paper versus reading on screens, distribution on the web or through the mail, etc. If anything these topics are of greater concern because of the ever-increasing complexity and sophistication of computer systems and other technologies that incorporate them. As a generalization, it has been suggested that even as most information is digital today the amount of printing on paper may be as great or greater than ever because printing has taken on new roles, and expanded old ones. For example in 2019 the U.S. Bureau of the Census contracted with R. R. Donnelly & Sons in Chicago for the printing of 1.5 billion census forms. Another example is that in our 2020 presidential election it was decided that ballots had to be printed on paper, and voting needed to be done by manually marking ballots, rather than by electronic voting machines, in order to maintain election security against hacking. To me it was also notable that many of the presses used to print the tens of millions of paper ballots were high speed digital offset presses manufactured by the HP Indigo Division of HP, Inc., a computer company. Digital presses can print on substances that previously might not have been printable, and we should not forget the issue of 3D printing of objects that was only a pipe dream in the past, or the potential printing of living organs.

The persistance of the production of printed books, along with the continuing development of eBooks, remain topics of interest to book historians as the world of digital information expands. How long will printed books remain a mainstream product? As far as I know, many bestselling books still sell more copies in print than they do in electronic form. Though Crown publishers do not appear to provide specific documentation between print and ebooks for Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming, as of November 2020 the memoir had sold 14 million copies in 24 languages worldwide, of which more than eight million sales were in the U.S. and Canada. The Wikipedia article on the book implied that most of these were printed books. And when books are printed they are increasingly printed on digital presses. Prior to printing books on paper the writing, formating and pre-press, if any, are done by computer today. On the other hand, certain types of publications like encyclopedias are no longer issued on paper. 

A connection between books and computers in the very early history of computing may be a good example of the long interrelationship between computing and books. In the early nineteenth century computer pioneer Charles Babbage became interested in developing his Difference Engines as a way to correct errors in mathematical tables--particularly errors in the Nautical Almanac, a printed book that was an essential tool in navigation. The Nautical Almanac was computed by hand by human computers who were spread out all over England. By Babbage's time the Nautical Almanac was notorious for its errors. To prevent errors that crept into the Nautical Almanac Babbage designed Difference Engines to calculate the tables using the method of differences. He also incorporated his designs for his difference engines the means to print tables directly into stereotype plates so that no errors would be introduced into the tables by human typesetting errors. Babbage was so far ahead of his time with his conception, design, and partial construction of his Difference Engines, which represented tremendously expensive challenges in metal working and engineering at the time, that those machines were never completed during his lifetime. Ironically, the most widely available and widely used computing tool that Babbage ever developed was his often reprinted edition of Tables of Logarithms, the last edition of which was published in 1889.

The issue of accuracy in printed tables remained a dominant motivator in the eventual development of electronic computers. During World War II human computers working for the U.S. military were unable to calculate a sufficient number of printed firing tables for the multitude of different types of artillery used by the Army and Navy. To find solutions the U.S. Navy sponsored the development of the Harvard Mark I electro-mechanical machine, and about the same time the U.S. Army sponsored the development of the ENIAC electronic computer for the same purpose. The electromechanical Harvard Mark I was one hundred times the speed of a human calculator. Much more dramatically, the ENIAC, which used 18,000 vacuum tubes as switches, was 10,000 times the speed of a human computer. Decades earlier, prior to these large government-sponsored projects English computation pioneer Leslie J. Comrie figured out how to use commercial accounting machines as difference engines in order to improve the accuracy of the Nautical Almanac. However, the modest incremental increase in speed enabled by Comrie was simply not adequate to compute the vast number of complicated tables needed in World War II.

Both the Harvard Mark I and the ENIAC became operational toward the end of World War II. In 1945, probably in October, after the end of World War II, Aiken published Tables of the Modified Hankel Functions of Order One-Third and of their Derivatives. These tables, calculated by the Harvard Mark I, were the first published mathematical tables calculated by a programmed automatic computer, finally fulfilling the dream of Charles Babbagefirst expressed in 1822. Calculating these tables required the equivalent of forty-five days of computer processing time on the comparatively slow Mark I. Prior to the Mark I, calculating the tables would have required years of human computation. Those of us old enough to remember slide rules also remember how widely printed tables were used in science before inexpensive hand-held calculators became available.  Those many, and frequently heavy and bulky printed tables, the improvements to and developments of which were powerful motivators in the early history of the development of mechanical and electronic computing, were, ironically, among the main class of books, along with printed encyclopedias, that were made redundant by the development of pervasive electronic computing and the Internet. 

Jeremy M. Norman
November 22, 2020