Throughout time we have been writing, collating our thoughts onto material as a record for the future ... these were not very easy to transport nor made to last with the rampages of climatic conditions, wear and tear etc.
Medieval University class (1350s) by
Laurentius de Voltolina, on parchment
People still gathered to exchange ideas and it is surprising that so many written thoughts have remained in existence for each successive generation to read and study.
Clay tablets were replaced by papyrus scrolls, parchment was then used before the printing press (+/- 1450) with paper (pulped rags were used for 2,000 years, until the process of pulping wood fibres was developed (1844), which we mainly use today) lowered the cost, enabling the mass exchange of information and contributing to significant cultural shifts.
Hemp Wrapping Paper, China:
circa 100 BC
All progress, George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) remarked, “depends on the unreasonable man” ... and by his own admission Michael Stern Hart (1947 – 2011) pioneer of e-books and founder of Project Gutenberg, was such a man.
Who would have thought a visit to the local shop in 1971, where he was given a free parchment copy of The Declaration of Independence, would lead to that Eureka moment, as he described it ... with Project Gutenberg being born ...
.... he had access to one of the first computers at Urbana University (a small university specialising in the liberal arts) , where his parents worked as professors of Mathematics and Shakespeare respectively; it was here that he decided to type up the Declaration of Independence to be stored online at one of the first computer nodes.
Michael Hart (L) and Gregory Newby
of Project Gutenberg, 2006
For years many people thought he was mad, as he laboriously typed up the Bible, works by Jane Austen, Plato, Shakespeare, Tolstoy ... he never finished his degree. He sacrificed everything for his passion – he lived simply (used a bicycle with a cart), worked hard, and when he fell ill he treated himself with home remedies, rather than expensive medicines.
By 1987 he had typed out 313 “great books” – and then that shift occurred ... technology, in the shape of scanning, software, computer memory and the internet caught up with the scale of his ambition. By June this year there were some 36,000 free electronic editions of public-domain literary works ... which as some of us can attest are a popular and convenient source of reference.
With thanks to The Week (17 September 2011) – for the Obituary on Michael Hart from which I sourced some of this information and ideas ... and then along comes another site I enjoy reading: Brain Pickings ...
... which has a fascinating post entitled: Vintage Versions of Modern Startups ... Twitter, Facebook, Quora, YouTube and Tumblr ... I so far have only checked out the Facebook one – by Stanford University ...
Here the University is researching and pulling together a snapshot of written data using new computer technology with geographical imaging to show the various intermingling and evolvement of philosophical ideas through their epistles.
Mapping this “Republic of Letters” – the self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many other we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.
The letter writers in the era that has become known as the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) come from a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking their finest “philosophies” across national borders and language barriers.
Republic of Letters map
– Stanford University
Brain Pickings has various links to the subject and a short video (2.15) entitled “Tracking 18th Century “social network” through the Electronic Enlightenment Project” ... which shows some fascinating mapping images ...
... while surprising the researchers that, three hundred and fifty years ago, so much information was circulating around the world ... for instance: how astronomical observations that had been written down in America or Asia could be seen to back link into Newton’s Principia ...
... another surprise shown in the video is that Voltaire communicated mainly with the southern half of Europe – whereas we might have thought that a main centre would be England and Scotland ... but the mapping shows Voltaire’s disconnect.
Coming back to the developments of today ... the ‘anxiety’ of the loss of people being able to jot down or record ideas, compose our thoughts for our stories because we are becoming so technically oriented – which is becoming a handicap to the thought logic ... that loss of process in working our thoughts out on paper ... the idea we wouldn’t have had if we weren’t writing.
The peace of mind in finding a pencil and paper – a napkin ... the back of an envelope – and then being able to note those thoughts down, which arose from the adolescent acceptance that we should write letters for social as well as business reasons.
Modern Book Printing –
sculpture .... commemorating
its inventor Gutenberg on
the occasion of the 2006
Football World Cup
Stanford University highlights what we have known for years as we research the letters of the literary greats ... when we research people – we find they were writing letters everyday ... and that is calisthenics for the brain.
Thank goodness for the likes of Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia which seem to embody the mission of the early web: to serve as a kind of super-library distributing knowledge widely and freely for its own sake.
The times they are a-changing ... but it’s good to know that there are people who are still looking through the glass clearly at the value to be obtained from researching into the past as well as recording this information for us to wonder at and learn from.
What does the future hold and how will we be using technology in the years ahead – I am sure we won’t be losing our grip on all this knowledge ... but it will be the researchers, readers and writers who benefit most ... while we as bloggers and authors will be doing our bit at collating information and ideas ... now I know what my exercise is .. calisthenics! I just need to stretch a little further ....
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