Last night I got to take my family to the Crandall Historical Printing Museum in Provo, one of the best historical printing musuems in the entire world. It’s one of my favorite places to go, and it was fun to see my kids get interested as well, though admittedly their attention didn’t last all the way through the end of the presentation. That’s okay, though: when you can keep a 6-year-old interested in the history of the printing press for any length of time, you have claimed a victory.
The museum starts, of course, with Gutenberg, and includes the most complete and most accurate demonstration of Gutenberg’s process anywhere in the world. First they talk about the difficulties of writing and publishing in the days before printing came along, and why printing was such a big deal; then they show you, step by step, how Gutenberg created all his various molds and bits and whatnot, actually casting a piece of type right in front of you. Then they talk about the ink and the paper, and how the press works, and they put it all together and actually print a page on a replica press. It’s awesome. My 6-year-old was, as I said, too restless to stay after this point, so I took him outside for a while, and instead of running around and screaming, like I thought he would, he stood by the front window and pointed out the tools and described for me, in incredible detail, the entire process he had just seen. That, my friends, is victory for education.
The next room jumps far ahead to Benjamin Franklin, often with an actor dressed up as Franklin, who walks you through his own story of printing almanacs and joke books and the Declaration of Independence. Later rooms cover the Grandin press, the local history of Utah newspapers, and so on, culminating in a live demonstration of a linotype machine. If you’ve never seen a linotype machine, let me tell you: you are missing out. It’s like Rube Goldberg and Dr. Suess got together and built the craziest typewriter they could think of, with ranks of letter molds that slide down tubes and ride little rails, and a reservoir of molten metal that forms enter pieces of movable type at the push of a button. It’s completely awesome, and has to be seen to be believed.
The history of printing is the history of the modern world: it is the tool that has enabled our civilization. If you have any kind of a printing museum near you, I encourage you to go as soon as possible. If you can’t see the presses in action, hunt around for a museum that has one or more pages of the Gutenberg Bible, and go see that instead: specific religious beliefs aside, it is a profound experience to stand in the presence of something that was printed, on a press, long before Columbus ever came to America. For a print geek like me, it’s a downright sacred artifact.