From the Printing Press to the Present

“What gunpowder did for the war

the printing press has done for the mind.”

-Wendell Phillips

It is said that Shakespeare himself doubted the immortality of print—rather, rival companies and actors are responsible for piecing Shakespeare’s plays together and printing them. The great playwright did not consider written works to hold the same impact as live, visual performances; this is ironic today when his work is largely acknowledged through publication.

The influential human rights activist Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) thought quite the opposite; he prophesized that the printing press was only the beginning of an intellectual revolution; and although he died long before the culmination of social networking, in many ways the media of print, wire and wave technology, film, television and personal computers has astronomically improved the communication—and education—of humans across space and time.

The Gutenberg printing press of 1440 allowed for the mass distribution of print media and provided an early segue into the Age of Enlightenment—a cultural celebration of God, man, and art. What better way is there to attribute God’s contribution to man’s invention than by creating the Bible as the first printed book? And not 400 years later, He seems to maintain a grasp on creation as Samuel F.B. Morse inaugurates the world’s first commercial telegraph line in 1844—reaching from the US Capitol to a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland—declaring, “What hath God wrought?”

Science converged with mass entertainment by the 1900s as the invention of film preserved moments of history on strips of transparent plastic lined with gelatin emulsion. Audiences were enraptured by the novelty of a moving picture; these permanent filmed documents provided a true testament to man’s harnessing of time, captured like so many winged fireflies into a jar. It wasn’t long before televisions began to adorn the homes of the late 1930s, and images from across the world became just as real and vivid as if the events hundreds of miles away were taking place in every fine-tuned living room. Suddenly viewers could watch presidential debates, witness the Vietnam War, and learn about global events through a news broadcast. And moving ever onward, like the “speeding” approach of the Lumiere brothers’ train to La Ciotat, continued technological progressions led to the invention of a media outlet capable of encompassing the other four entirely: the personal computer.

This unwieldy box structure, initially designed in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen (and then competitively reproduced in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) would eventually contain many computing benefits for business and educational work. Improvements over the next 40 years would make the computer smaller, faster, more efficient, and increasingly useful as users gained the ability to create documents, check the weather, send emails, take online courses, watch videos, and in various other ways communicate with distant peoples and countries.

Although the past triumphs of man were often attributed to a higher power, the approach of the 21st century has given rise to a generation of scientists who wonder if intelligence itself can be reproduced; they wonder if man can play God.

Someday in the (distant?) future, the creation of the first true, reasoning, empathetic, artificial intelligence will be written down in history. This landmark breakthrough in the field of science will be fondly reminisced by future generations, who will recall the first utterances of the inventor—a person whose name will be forever engraved beneath the iconic epitaph:

“What Man hath wrought!”