The Story-Book of Science Chapter 20


“AFTER a book is written, the author sends his work, his manuscript, to the printer, who is to reproduce it in printed letters and in as many copies as are desired.

“Picture to yourself fine and short metal sticks, on the end of each of which is carved in relief a letter of the alphabet. One of these sticks has an a  on the end, another a b, another a c, etc. There are others which have a full-stop, a comma, a semi-colon; in fact, there are as many distinct kinds of these little metal pieces as there are letters and orthographic signs in our written language. Besides, each letter and each sign are represented a great many times. Let us take note, too, that all these characters are carved wrong side before; you will soon see the reason.

“A workman called a compositor has before him a stand of cases, of which each compartment is occupied by a single letter of the alphabet, or by an orthographic sign. The a’s are in such a compartment, the b’s in a second, the c’s in a third, and so on. The letters, furthermore, are not arranged in the case alphabetically. To shorten the work, they put in the compartments near to hand the letters that occur most frequently, such as the e’s, r’s, i’s, a’s; and they place in the more distant compartments the letters less often used, such as x’s and y’s.

“The compositor has before him a manuscript, and at his left hand a little flanged iron ruler called a composing-stick.

c.20 composingAs he reads, his right hand, guided by long habit, searches in the case the desired letter and places it in the composing-stick, upright and in a row with the others. He separates the words by means of a metal stick like those of the letters, but the end of which remains depressed and does not bear any carving. The first line finished, the compositor begins another by setting a new row of little metal pieces next to the row already finished. Finally, when the composing-stick is full, the workman cautiously places the contents in an iron frame, which keeps the delicate combination from going to pieces; and he continues thus until the frame is quite full and we have what is called the printing-bed. This plate is composed of a multitude of little metal sticks, simply placed side by side. There are as many of these as there are letters, orthographic signs, and spaces separating the words. The arrangement of these numerous bits of metal is a masterpiece that a false movement might ruin. It is held firm in its iron frame by means of wedges, so that the whole thing seems made of a single block of metal. The bed is then ready for printing.

“A roller impregnated with a thick ink made of oil and lampblack is passed over the plate. The letters and orthographic signs, which alone stand out in relief, become covered with ink; the rest does not take it because its surface is lower. A sheet of paper is placed on the inked plate; it is covered with a pad to protect it, then pressed hard. The ink of the characters is deposited on the paper, and the sheet is found printed on one side. To print the other, the operation is repeated with a second plate. The metal letters are, as I said, carved wrong side before, as the letters of a book appear when you look at them in a mirror. The inky imprint left by them on the paper reproduces them in a reversed position, and consequently in the right way.

“The first sheet is followed immediately by a second. With the roller the plate is inked again, a sheet of paper is applied, pressure is exerted, and it is done. Then comes a third sheet, a hundredth, a thousandth, indefinitely. All that is needed each time is to ink the plate, cover it with paper, then press. All this is done with such rapidity that in a short time we have a great pile of printed sheets, each of which it would take a whole day to write by hand.

“Before the invention of this marvelous art, which enables us to reproduce the works of the mind very rapidly and in as great numbers as may be desired, we were restricted to hand-made copies. These manuscript books required years of work, and hence were very rare and high-priced. Large fortunes were necessary to acquire a library of several volumes. To-day books find their way everywhere, spreading in profusion, even among the lowest classes, the sacred bread of intelligence. Printing has been known for four hundred years: its invention is due to Gutenberg.”

“That is a name I shall never forget,” said Jules.

“It deserves, above all, to be remembered, for with the printed book Gutenberg rendered impossible henceforth the ignorant times through which man has miserably passed. Our intellectual treasures, resources for the future, are better than engraved on stone or metal; they are inscribed on sheets of paper, in copies too numerous to be all destroyed.”

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