gutenberg and wine -- 1/10/19

Today's encore selection -- from Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. For Johannes Gutenberg, it was the ubiquity of winemakers nearby that helped lead to the invention of the printing press around 1440 CE:

"Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) ... tells the story of a device winemakers had recently invented, a new kind of press that employed a screw to 'concentrate pressure upon broad planks placed over the grapes, which are covered also with heavy weights above.' There is some debate among scholars over whether Pliny may have been rooting for the home team in attributing the invention to his compatriots, since evidence for the use of screw presses in producing wines and olive oils dates back several centuries, to the Greeks. But whatever the exact date of its origin, the practical utility of the screw press, unlike so many great ideas from the Greco-Roman period, ensured that it survived intact through the Dark Ages.

"When the Renaissance finally blossomed, more than a millennium after Pliny's demise, Europe had to rediscover Ptolemaic astronomy and the secrets of building aqueducts. But they didn't have to relearn how to press grapes. In fact, they'd been tinkering steadily with the screw press all along, improving on the model, and optimizing it for the mass production of wines. By the mid-1400s, the Rhineland region of Germany, which historically had been hostile to viticulture for climate reasons, was now festooned with vine trellises. Fueled by the increased efficiency of the screw press, German vineyards reached their peak in 1500, covering roughly four times as much land as they do in their current incarnation. It was hard work producing drinkable wine in a region that far north, but the mechanical efficiency of the screw press made it financially irresistible.

Early modern wine press. Such screw presses were applied in Europe to a wide range of uses and provided Gutenberg with the model for his printing press.

"As many scholars have noted, Gutenberg's printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation, more bricolage than breakthrough. Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine—the movable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself—had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. Movable type, for instance, had been independently conceived by a Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng four centuries before. But the Chinese (and, subsequently, the Koreans) failed to adapt the technology for the mass production of texts, in large part because they imprinted the letterforms on the page by hand rubbing, which made the process only slightly more efficient than your average medieval scribe. Thanks to his training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg made some brilliant modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system, but without the press itself, his meticulous lead fonts would have been useless for creating mass-produced Bibles.

"An important part of Gutenberg's genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem. We don't know exactly what chain of events led Gutenberg to make that associative link; few documentary records remain of Gutenberg's life between 1440 and 1448, the period during which he assembled the primary components of his invention. But it is clear that Gutenberg had no formal experience pressing grapes. His radical breakthrough relied, instead, on the ubiquity of the screw press in Rhineland winemaking culture, and on his ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology. He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.

"Evolutionary biologists have a word for this kind of borrowing, first proposed in an influential 1971 essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba: exaptation."



Steven Johnson


Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation


Riverhead Books a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 


Copyright 2010 by Steven Johnson


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