Today, we visit a printing museum. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Since last Saturday, the
ancient problem of displaying the written word has
lain upon my mind. I visited Houston's Museum of
Printing History, and I realize that, for all I've
said about papyrus and paper, parchment and stone,
writing and printing — I'd never quite seen the
full sweep of the subject in one place.
Consider the difficulty: The Rosetta Stone may be
seen only in the British Museum. Gutenberg's press
has long since perished. Only 48 Gutenberg Bibles
survive today and, when they change hands, they do
so for millions of dollars. So this museum enriches
a fine collection of original material
with exquisite facsimiles of the unattainable
Rosetta Stone is not just a copy, but a
casting of the original.
Gutenberg press is a great hulking wooden
machine made by the Pratt Wagon Works in Utah. That
may seem unlikely but who'd be better qualified to
build this large wooden structure? The design is
based on a woodcut of a later press that historians
deem to be very close to the original. And the Gutenberg
Bible is a faithful reproduction, a thousand
copies of which were printed in 1961.
Printing is, of course, far older than Gutenberg.
We see an original eighth-century block-printed
Japanese scroll. It predates Gutenberg's
development of movable metal type by eight
centuries. In fact, this scroll was printed three
centuries before the Chinese first invented
printing with movable ceramic type.
Perhaps the museum's strongest focus is on the
machinery of printing. Here are the small
letterpresses that've been used to print fancy
invitations as well as to foment revolutions. You
see early power presses, and the first offset
printing press. I'm drawn to the Linotype machine,
because I know how it revolutionized newspaper
printing. Using it, you could finally set type from
a keyboard, instead of having to pick each letter
out of a case.
The late-eighteenth-century invention of
lithography is well represented. It radically
changed nineteenth-century newspapers when it gave
them effective means for including pictures.
I pause in one of the museum's many workshops.
Charles Criner, a fine artist and a student of John
Biggers, is continuing Biggers work with powerful
lithographs of the Black American experience. We
chat as he creates art, right before my eyes.
The museum dances between process and content. On
the walls, we read pages printed by Benjamin
Franklin, newspapers from Colonial times, the War
for Texas Independence, the Civil War --. We see
pages printed in Mexico, almost a century before
the Plymouth Colony. Originals where possible and
facsimiles where not -- a room for making paper and
another for setting type.
It's all there, the whole sweep. A work in
progress. A soul-settling adventure, from which to
emerge into the slanting light of the autumn
afternoon, here in Houston.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For information about Houston's Museum of Printing
History, see: http://www.printingmuseum.org/
For more on Charles Criner and his lithography,
For Engines episodes on all the many
aspects of printing, click on Full-Text
Search of the Engines site
I am most grateful to Betsy Griffin, Executive
Director of the Museum of Printing History for her
counsel, and to Oscar Graham of Houston's Detering
Book Gallery for suggesting the topic.
(Be sure to click on the links above for more