Today, an intellectual combines mind and machine.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1474 William Caxton
finished volume three of his translation of the
histories of Troy. In those days, writers finished
their manuscripts off with personal notes, called
explicits. Caxton's explicit said, "My
pen is worn, mine hand heavy, mine eye even
dimmed." That much was a typical scribe's
But this explicit was a turning point. You see,
Caxton had done something about his tired hand. He
went on to say,
... because I have promised [this book] to
divers gentlemen ... therefore I have practiced and
learned ... to ordain this ... book in print ... it
is not written in pen and ink as other books
Caxton was English. He'd come to Bruges in 1442 as
apprentice to a merchant -- the same year Gutenberg
printed the oldest book we know about. Bruges was
part of the Duchy of Burgundy -- a great European
cultural center. Caxton did well there. By the time
Gutenberg printed his great Bible, Caxton was
He'd also begun collecting hand-written books. That
love of books led him into a new occupation. At 47,
he entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of
Burgundy. Margaret was a noted scholar -- an
arbiter of good taste in literature. Caxton was
intimidated by her scholarship, but he was also
enamored of it.
When Margaret authorized him to translate the
histories of Troy, the first two volumes were very
popular. Margaret kept asking for copies. Caxton
had to write each one out by hand.
So he learned some of the new art of printing, and
he invented the rest. His printing wasn't as good
as Gutenberg's. His spacing and alignment were
crude by comparison. His ornate type faces didn't
have the same classical grace.
The early European printers were fine technicians
and only so-so scholars. Caxton was only a fair
technician, but his vision reshaped the very
purpose of literature as he printed.
After his third printed book, he left Burgundy and
set up England's first press at Westminster Abbey.
There he changed the rules of the game. European
printers had given patrons what they expected --
fine copies of Latin and Greek manuscripts.
None of that for Caxton. He knew books must
interact with living readers. He published in
English -- The Canterbury Tales, a
French-English dictionary, romances. He was
preparing his one-hundredth book when he died in
Caxton's England was a cultural backwater. But now,
late in life, he took up more than just the trade
of printing. He reconnected high culture with the
people. He set the stage for Shakespeare. When
Caxton took books to the people he changed them --
and he changed England.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Deacon, R., A Biography of William Caxton: The
First English Editor, Printer, Merchant and
Translator. Chatham, Frederick Muller Ltd.,
Blake, N.F., Caxton: England's First
Publisher. London: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.,
Jennett, S., Pioneers in Printing.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1958, pp.
Many facsimile volumes of Caxton's works are
available. Check your local library. The actual
title of his first printed book was Recuyell
of the Trojan Histories.
(Recuyell is an old French word
The oldest known printing in fully movable type is
a single page from a book with the title The
World Judgment. The date is 1442, and the
quality of the printing is already quite good. It
was almost certainly Gutenberg's work (see Chapter
1 of the Jennett book, above).
The following website displays Caxton's printer's
device and some of his history:
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
from Halleck's New English
Typical examples of Caxton's typography
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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