This article is based on a recent trip I took to the Eastern Star Gallery in Grahamstown, an incredible museum illustrating the past of printing and publication. It was an incredible experience, and I owe a great deal of thanks to the museum’s curator, Richard Berneister, for the experience.
How different it would be if I was writing and publishing this in the 1800s.
I would not have started by opening a new Word document. I would have started by writing it all out on a piece of paper, before taking it to my printing station.
Instead of just pressing buttons for the 293 characters I have put down so far, I would have had to have fetched every single character from its individual box, and fit them neatly into an enormously heavy metal grid one by one, reading backwards in order to print the right way around on the paper.
I would not then just click the “justify” button in my toolbar, but would have had to extract spaces in each row and replace them with infinitesimally larger spaces, the difference between their sizes almost invisible by the human eye.
I would then have to go and hammer the assortment flat, ensure an equal spread of ink across every letter, and roll an enormous roller over it in order to print it out on a piece of paper.
I would have had mixed up all my p’s and q’s because of their similarity when working with a mirror reflection, and had to carefully extract and replace individual characters without dropping the entire assortment so as to void having to do it again, in order to fix these mistakes.
After hours of hard labour I would now finally be able to take this short little document over to the enormous Wharfedale press, large enough to fill a double garage, and risk losing a couple fingers or even a limp in the enormous machine’s dozens of mechanisms. The seamless engineering beauty of this magnificent machine would print me out an (apparently) incredible 600 copies per hour.
Being a writer in the 1800s would have been excruciating, I think to myself, as I press WordPress’s little blue “publish” button, after a mere twenty minutes.