The days of print are numbered, or that’s what we have been led to believe with the increasing growth of the digital age. But we have a long standing history with print that, like with any long term relationship, is hard to move on from.
Our reliance on print dates back centuries, at least 35,000 years to be more specific. To put that in perspective, the modern form of humans only evolved around 200,000 years ago, and it’s entirely possible that we haven’t yet discovered the oldest form of printed documents.
A piece (or tablet) of history
Before machines took over the process, we were printing all sorts of information by hand not all that dissimilar from what we print today. A Bloomberg excavation in the heart of London revealed over 400 writing tablets, Britain’s largest, earliest and most significant collection of Roman waxed writing tablets. MOLA, an archaeological company that took the responsibility of excavating these tablets have listed snippets of text from some of the 80 odd that the have managed to decipher so far. These include:
“Evidence of someone practicing writing the alphabet and numerals, perhaps the first evidence for a school in Britain.”
“A contract from 21 October AD 62 to bring ‘twenty loads of provisions’ from Verulamium to London by 13 November, a year after the Boudican Revolt.”
“The names of nearly 100 people, from a cooper, brewer and judge, to soldiers, slaves and freedmen.”
MOLA are planning to display some of these tablets, including the earliest-dated hand written document from Britain dated 8 January 57 AD, at The London Mithraeum exhibition due to open in Autumn 2017.
From tablets to books
The oldest surviving printed book is The Diamond Sutra. Dating back to 868 AD, it was discovered in a cave in China in the first decade of the 1900s (the year of discovery has been placed between 1900 and 1907 according to different sources). It is a seven part manuscript bearing the teachings of the Buddha in traditional Chinese text. It’s assumed that Buddhist teachings spread from India to China along the famous Silk Road trade route. The Diamond Sutra is currently on display at The British Library in a clever installation that allows you to view the seven sections individually.
image source: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-diamond-sutra
The era of printing machines
Skip ahead several thousand years and we arrive in the mid 1400s, where Gutenberg’s printing press was rapidly spreading across the globe. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that printing methods started to resemble what we are accustom to today. And only in 1969 did the printers used in most households, laser and inkjet, come into existence.
So what does all this mean for the future of print? Well, print has been with us for at least a sixth of our current existence. What we define as the ‘digital age’ can only dated back as early as the 1950s. It can’t be denied that digital information has had a massive impact on most of our daily lives, and it has another several thousand years of evolution ahead of it. But print has had a much earlier head start, and with the coming of 3D and 4D printing, it looks doubtful that print will become extinct any time soon.