A Historical Account of Useful Inventions and Scientific Discoveries – George Grant

AMONG the many arts and sciences cultivated in society, some are only adapted to supply our natural wants, or assist our infirmities; some are mere instruments of luxury, calculated to flatter pride, to gratify vanity, and to satisfy our desires of every description; whilst others tend at once to secure, to accommodate, delight, and give consequence to man. Of this latter kind, Printing undoubtedly stands pre-eminent; and if viewed in its full extent, it may be truly said to possess a very considerable portion not only of the comforts, but the conveniences and positive utilities of life. The advantages derived from this invention must be acknowledged by all,—this art has proved the principal step towards civilization: by it has Christianity been propagated; and by its powerful means are we made acquainted with all that is useful in knowledge, in art, and science. It would take the pen of an inspired writer to enumerate all the blessings which flow from it. It is a patent engine which possesses a preponderating influence over the mind of man either for good or evil, according as it is used. As we proceed we will have frequent occasion to express our feelings in grateful eulogium, when considering the benefits resulting to society from various ingenious inventions and discoveries; but when we consider the advantages derived from the typographic art, it appears like a vortex, drawing every other sensation into its deep interest, and engulphing every consideration, so that we can think of nothing but printing, and its extensive catalogue of benefits. This interest is wonderfully increased, whether it be viewed on account of its ingenuity, the extent of its benefits, or the benevolence of its objects. In whatever point of view we behold it, whether as a medium for giving the utmost facility to the despatch of the common concerns of life; or as affording the eager mind of the philosophic inquirer the ready means to gratify the inquisitive thirst of his knowledge; in every species of mental intelligence, the rapid facility which it affords to the multiplication of those mediums of communication, by which knowledge is promulgated in every part of the earth. We are at a loss for a term sufficiently comprehensive to express our sense of the infinite importance of those advantages which accrue to mankind from the invention of an art so replete with important consequences, which we hourly perceive to emanate from typography. We need therefore scarcely offer an apology for inserting a brief history of this divine art in our pages. The earliest specimens of printing which have been discovered, consist in the stamped marks on the bricks and tiles used in building the tower and city of Babel, and which may be dated as far back as two thousand two hundred years before Christ. A number of these stamped clay materials of Babel are still preserved in antiquarian repositories. It is remarkable that they generally differ in shape and appearance, and that the letters or words, which are in ancient character, seem to have been stamped by the hand with moveable blocks. In Trinity College, Cambridge, some curious specimens are preserved, one of which is a round piece of clay, seven inches in height, and three in thickness at the end, resembling a barrel, being thickest at the middle. This interesting relic, this Chaldean book, is entirely covered with lines of letters and words running from the one end to the other; from its portable character it may be called a pocket volume, and one which cannot be less than four thousand years old.

It is mounted on a marble pedestal, covered with a glass case, secured by an iron bracket, and so contrived that the curious inspector may cause it to revolve on its marble base; but the greatest care is taken of this valuable relic of antiquity. It appears to have been printed by two moulds, and at the middle of the circumference a small blank square has been left, in case as it is supposed, room should be required for a portion of the clay to escape in the action of compression. Next to these extremely ancient stamped bricks, in point of interest and antiquity, are specimens of the earliest engraving of letters on stone. We are informed by various historical writers that Cadmus, a Phœnician, who lived one thousand five hundred years before Christ, at a period contemporary with Moses, and who was esteemed as the builder of the city of Thebes, was the first who taught the Greeks the use of alphabetic symbols, an art he most likely acquired from the Hebrews. The most ancient specimen of an engraved inscription now known to be extant, is the Sigean Inscription, so called from having been disinterred upon a promontory named Sigeum, situate near the ancient city of Troy, in Phrygia. It is engraved on a pillar of beautifully white marble, nine feet high, two feet broad, and eight inches thick, and which, from the inscription, served as the pedestal of the heathen god Hermocrates. The letters used in this inscription are the capitals of the Grecian language, though rudely cut, but read from right to left like the Hebrew. This specimen of engraving must be about three thousand years old. Another not less interesting relic of the earliest age of printing is found in a Roman signet ring or stamp, approaching in character to that species of stamp now used by the post-office on letters. This curiosity is preserved in the British Museum.

It is the very earliest specimen we possess of printing, by means of ink or any similar substance. It is made of metal, a sort of Roman brass; the ground of which is covered with a green kind of verdigris rust, with which antique medals are usually covered. The letters rise flush up to the elevation of the exterior rim which surrounds it. Its dimensions are, about two inches long, by one inch broad. At the back of it is a small ring for the finger, to promote the convenience of holding it. As no person of the name which is inscribed upon it is mentioned in Roman History, he is therefore supposed to have been a functionary of some Roman officer, or private steward, and who, perhaps, used this stamp to save himself the trouble of writing his name. A stamp somewhat similar, in the Greek character, is in the possession of the Antiquarian Society, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It will be perceived that however curious these relics of antiquity may be, they do not bear any connection with the art of printing books. The origin of this invention seems to be quite independent of a preceding knowledge of impressing by means of stamps. What is, however, worthy of remark, the art of printing books, though on a rude principle, was known and in use among the Chinese, at least one thousand four hundred years before it was invented in Europe.

The printing of the Chinese has never resembled anything of the kind in this country. From the first it has been conducted without moveable types. Each page has been, and continues to be, a block or cut stamp, which is thus useful for only one subject—so that every book must have its own blocks. No press is used. The paper being thin, when laid on the block receives the impression by being smoothed over with a brush. There is reason to infer that the art of printing, as thus practised by the Chinese, may have originated through a knowledge of the still more ancient Chaldean mode of printing by blocks on clay. But we may expect, from the well-known ingenuity of the Chinese, and their (in general,) having the organ of imitation so fully developed, that they will not much longer continue this primitive method of printing, as an enterprising practical printer has emigrated, with an excellent assortment of presses, types, &c., from Edinburgh, to conduct his business in the celestial empire. We wish him all success. The discovery of the art of printing with moveable types, which took place in the fifteenth century, in Germany, was considerably aided by a fashion, which had been some time prevalent, of cutting blocks of wood into pictures, or representations of scenes illustrative of Scriptural history, and printing them on paper, simply by the pressure of the hand, a brush, or cushion behind.

One of the earliest of these wood-cuts is still extant, and represents the creation of man, as detailed in the book of Genesis. In the centre of the picture stands a figure, intended for the Divinity, having the appearance of an old man with flowing garments, a venerable beard, and rays proceeding from the head; on the ground, before him, lies a human being, intended for Adam, fast asleep; and from an opening in his side is seen proceeding the slender figure of a female, meaning Eve, who is taken by the hand by God, and is apparently receiving His blessing. The execution of this, and cuts of a similar nature, is of the rudest description, and is a striking testimony of the low scale of art at the time. Pictures of this nature, which were bound up into books, nevertheless, were the immediate forerunners of the great invention itself. Books of prints, it will naturally be imagined, would soon be found imperfect, for want of descriptive text; this, therefore, urged on the great discovery. The manufacturers of the books, at first, cut single sentences or words, and stamped them below the pictures; but this not conveying a sufficient idea of the subject represented, an anxiety arose to give a lengthened description on the opposite pages. This it seems was, at length, accomplished; still the sentences were all cut in a piece, and the notion of having separate letters, so as to form words at pleasure, was unknown at that period. We will now proceed to the introduction of the modern art of printing. Ever since the typographic art has been introduced into modern Europe in its present form, the best, and one of the most certain criterions,—which prove the undoubted sense of our species,— exists in the multiplicity of claims which have been made by several cities for the honour of affording the earliest shelter to the infancy of this art. It really appears to be a question yet undecided, to what city, individual, or even era, to attribute this beneficial invention.

However, there is every reason to believe that in this art, as well as in most others, the improvements which have subsequently taken place, have benefited the art itself, as much as that has benefited mankind: therefore, the question of its origin does not appear to us to be of so much importance. Amidst the claims of various individuals, Mr. Bouzer, in his “Origin of Printing,” says, that this honour ought to be adjudged to one of the three cities of Haerlem, Mentz, or Strasburg; of which, in his opinion, the first named city has best established her legitimate right. “But it appears,” to use his own words, “that all those cities, in a qualified sense, may claim it, considering the improvements they have made upon each other.” The real and original inventor of the modern art of printing, as at first used, and from whence the improved practice is descended, was one Laurentius, of Haerlem; who, however, proceeded no further than to cut separate wooden letters. There is every reason to believe that, at first, these wooden forms were made upon the principle of the forma literarum of the Romans. This Laurentius, it appears, made his first essay about the year 1430; he died ten years afterwards, having first printed the “Horarium,” the “Speculum Belgicum,” and two editions of “Donatus.” The individual on whom history most generally places the honour of being the earliest discoverer of the art of printing by means of moveable letters, or types, was John Guttenberg, a citizen of Mayence, or Mentz, who flourished from the year 1436 to 1466, in the reign of Frederick III. of Germany. The ingenious Guttenburg was born at Mayence, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and removed to Strasburg about the year 1424, or, perhaps rather earlier.

Here he became acquainted with the above-named Laurentius, with whom he proceeded to Haerlem, and continued in the employment of Laurentius for some time. However, he returned to Strasburg, where, in 1435, he entered into partnership with Andrew Dritzehan, John Riff, and Andrew Heelman, citizens of Strasburg, binding himself to disclose to them some important secrets, by which they would make their fortunes. The workshop was in the house of Dritzehan, who dying, Guttenberg immediately sent his servant, Lawrence Beildick, to Nicholas, the brother of the deceased, and requested that no person might be admitted into the workshop, lest the secret should be discovered, and the forms stolen. But they had already disappeared; and this fraud, as well as the claims of Nicholas Dritzehan, to succeed to his brother’s share, produced a law-suit among the surviving partners. Five witnesses were examined; and from the evidence of Guttenburg’s servants, it was incontrovertibly proved that Guttenberg was the first that practised the art of printing with moveable types in Strasburg; and that on the death of Andrew Dritzehan, he had expressly ordered the forms to be broken up, and the types dispersed, lest any one should discover his secret. The words given in his order, which were supported by documentary evidence, were these—“Go, take the component parts of the press, and pull them to pieces; then, no one will understand what they mean.” In the same document mention is made of four forms, kept together by two screws, or press spindles, and of letters and pages being cut up and destroyed. It has been asserted that Guttenberg stole the types from Laurentius, with which he repaired to Strasburg, and commenced business; but of this we can find no corroboration. It has also been said that upon this occasion, Guttenberg stole his own materials, but this is likewise unauthenticated. The result of this law-suit, which occurred in 1439, was a dissolution of partnership; and Guttenberg, after having exhausted his means in the effort, proceeded, in 1445, to his native city of Mentz, where he resumed his typographic labours.

Being ambitious of making his extraordinary invention known, and of value to himself, but being at the same time deficient in the means, he opened his mind to a wealthy goldsmith and worker in precious metals, named John Fust, or Faust, and prevailed on him to advance large sums of money, in order to make further and more complete trials of the art. Guttenberg, being thus associated with Faust, the first regular printing office was begun, and the business carried on in a style corresponding to the infancy of the art. After many smaller essays in trying the capabilities of a press and moveable types, Guttenberg had the hardihood to attempt an edition of the Bible, which he succeeded in printing complete between the years 1450 and 1455. This celebrated Bible, which was the first important specimen of the art of printing, and which, judging from what it has led to, we should certainly esteem as the most extraordinary and praiseworthy of human productions, was executed with cut metal types, on six hundred and thirty-seven leaves; and, from a copy still in existence in the Royal Library of Berlin, some appear to have been printed on vellum. The work was printed in the Latin language. The execution of this—the first printed Bible—which has justly conferred undying honours on the illustrious Guttenberg, was most unfortunately, the immediate cause of his ruin. The expenses incident to carrying on a fatiguing and elaborate process of workmanship, for a period of five years, being much more considerable than what were originally contemplated by Faust, he instituted a suit against poor Guttenberg, who, in consequence of the decision against him, was obliged to pay interest, and also a part of the capital that had been advanced. This suit was followed by a dissolution of partnership; and the whole of Guttenberg’s materials fell into the hands of John Faust. Besides the above-mentioned Bible, some other specimens of the work of Guttenberg have been discovered to be in existence. One in particular, which is worthy of notice, was found some years ago, among a bundle of old papers, in the archives of Mayence.

It is an almanack for the year 1457, which served as a cover for a register of accounts for that year. This would most likely be printed towards the close of the year 1456, and may, consequently, be deemed the most ancient specimen of typographic printing extant, with a certain date. Antiquaries and Bibliomaniacs have found considerable difficulty in ascertaining by what process Guttenberg manufactured types; but it appears to be the prevalent opinion, that those which he first used were individually cut by the hand; and being all made as near a height and thickness as possible, they were thus put together in the forms. The cutting of these types must have been a tedious, as well as laborious, occupation. This ingenious man, however, soon discovered the mode of casting his types, by means of moulds; for without this great accessory to the art of printing, he conceived it was next to impossible to carry on his business. The art of type-founding is therefore given to John Guttenberg, in which it would appear he has had no competitor for the honour; but, it is but justice to state that the plan of striking the moulds with punches was a subsequent invention of Peter Schoeffer, his successor, who became partner with Faust, and afterwards his son-in-law. That Guttenberg was a person of refined taste in the execution of his works, is sufficiently obvious to every person who has had the opportunity of seeing any of them. Adopting a very ancient custom common in the written copies of the Scriptures and the missals of the church, he used a large ornamental letter at the commencement of books and chapters, finely embellished, and surrounded with a variety of figures as in a frame. The initial letter of the first psalm thus forms a splendid specimen of the art of printing in its early progress. It is richly ornamented with foliage, flowers, a bird, and a greyhound, and is still more beautiful from being printed in a pale blue colour, while the embellishments are red, and of a transparent appearance

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