Arabic and the Art of Printing
Saudi Aramco World Magazine*
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This section composed of five articles appeared in Aramco World [now Saudi Aramco World], issue March/April 1981, pp. 20-35; the web version is at: Arabic and the Art of Printing. We are grateful to Saudi Aramco World, especially to Mr Robert Arndt, for the kind permission granted to us to reproduce the articles of this special section. The figures and captions illustrating the articles were added by the editorial board of www.MuslimHeritage.com.
Table of contents
1. Preface, by Aramco World editorial board***
2. Arabic and the Art of Printing by Paul Lunde
3. Facing The Future by John M. Munro
4. A Missing Link by Paul Lunde
5. On Paper by Caroline Stone
1. Preface, by Aramco World editorial board
By 1980, the Computer Revolution - or Data Processing Revolution - had begun to transform world communications almost as drastically as the invention of movable type and the printing press in 1454, the rotary press in 1844 and the linotype machine in 1886. Indeed, Christopher Evans, in his book The Mighty Micro, flatly predicted that in the 1980's the printed word will slowly but steadily "slide into oblivion".
Dr. Evans, to be sure, based his predictions on devices still in the experimental stage: computer terminals the size of a book's page, automatic "page turning" and ceiling screens for comfortable reading in bed. But he also notes that practical "electronic newspapers" are already in existence - such as England's Prestel, that in 1980 began to provide up-to-the-second news, airline schedules and magazine articles for TV screens. And there is no denying that the introduction of computerized typesetting in the 1970's virtually eliminated the typewriter and the linotype machine from most American newspapers and publishing houses.
To some in the publishing and printing industries, such changes were as shattering an experience as the introduction of printing must have been to the medieval scribe. Suddenly forced to swap their battered typewriters and clanking linotype machines for the futuristic keyboarding and green-lettered television terminals of the computer, aging reporters, veteran editors and trained printers often quailed and quit. As so often happens, the casualties of progress were high.
But the trend is irreversible. Fast, silent and efficient, the computer saves time, reduces noise, cuts costs - and promises a transformation in communications as significant as the effects of the two seminal inventions in the history of communications: paper and printing. Both paper and printing -which changed the worlds into which they were introduced - originated in the Far East, and paper at least was transmitted to Europe through the Islamic world. Like the invention of the alphabet itself, also of Eastern origin, the ramifications of both inventions were far reaching.
In today's print-saturated world, Gutenberg's invention of movable type may not seem as remarkable as it actually was. But given the technology of 1454, making typefaces was proportionately more difficult than making transistors – as J. Ben Lieberman makes clear in Type and Typefaces. Craftsmen had to cut out a mirror image of the shape of each letter on the end of a steel rod, hammer the outline of the steel "letter" into a flat piece of brass -to create a matrix - and carefully pour a molten mixture of lead, tin and antimony into the mold, thus creating a one-inch-high piece of "type" with one letter on the end. This had to be done for each letter - and one page of Gutenberg's Bible needed up to 5,000 individual pieces of type. The new printers, therefore, had to have up to 25,000 pieces of type on hand – plus another 25,000 spaces to separate the type - if they wished to keep setting other pages while one was being printed.
A pivotal advance, movable type, together with the printing press, made books – and thus literacy and learning available to the masses, a development that was to have incalculable results. Had Columbus been born earlier, for example, he probably would not have had access to such works as the writings of Ptolemy, which spurred him toward the discovery of the New World. Movable type was introduced just one year after the fall of Constantinople sent Byzantine scholars streaming into Italy-with their precious collections of Greek manuscripts-where the printing press provided a channel for the circulation of Greek learning throughout Europe.
Furthermore, printing from movable type, coming as it did at the peak of the Renaissance, was a key factor in the swift dissemination of advances in scientific, technological and industrial knowledge; it thus contributed to Europe's gradual emergence-first to equality, eventually to dominance – in a world long in the shadow of the Ottoman Empire. Conversely, the absence of printing was an important element in the eventual decline of the Ottomans. Lacking printing, the Ottomans were slower to assimilate and circulate the new learning and thus, to an extent, failed to stay abreast of Renaissance Europe, particularly in technology.
Today, of course, printing is firmly established in the Arab world and Arabic typography is among the most interesting. Indeed printing, once it was established in the Arab East, developed almost as rapidly as it did in the West earlier –and has had similar results. This is the story of how that came about.
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by: FSTC Limited, Fri 22 August, 2008