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The Book of Time

The Book of Time Who is the genius behind the mass-production of books?

Time is a never-ending book. And each book is a time-keeper. Time itself is made of stories and each story is a chapter in the book of time. Still, the book is written and the stories go. Over and above, the story of the time has no clear start. Yet, the book had to reveal the tale with chapter number one. 

…let us give wings to truth that it may fly with the Word – Johannes Gutenberg 

People achieved knowledge through personal experience and written words. On the other hand, knowledge was spread through word of mouth and books. It was passed in time from one generation to another with the help of pen and paper. Regardless of the field of science, minds are fed with books. In order for a society to be flourishing, its members had to be educated. Decades ago, the most educated people were monks and noble families. It was reading that made it possible. They were the only ones able to read. This enlarged their knowledge and enabled the first intellectuals. But, in order for society to forge ahead, its people had to thrive by themselves. It is thought that the Chinese were the first to develop the art of printing. But the process was very time consuming and the work behind could not be rewarded by the results. Here begins the story of a visionary whose impact in human evolution and development is crucial. From an economic point of view, Johannes Gutenberg is not only the captain, but also the shipwright of movable typing. He introduced the concept of printing press based on the method of movable type. This helped knowledge to be captured on paper easier, faster, cheaper and in larger amounts. Regardless of its scientific field, knowledge is the foundation of economic evolution. The dissemination of medical, religious, historical, or any other type of knowledge represents the engine of economic development for societies above subsistence levels. Gutenberg not only created the engine, but also started it. 

Dear (e)book readers 

History does not reveal if Gutenberg knew that the Chinese were the first to use wooden stamps to write on paper. Instead, Gutenberg was the inventor of the metal mold based on movable metal letters. The German inventor made possible the process of printing a large number of books, without copying each paper by hand in order to duplicate an existing one. His movable metal letters could be re-used, in contrast with the wooden mold that after first usage needed to be replaced. This way, one mold was able to produce more pages. Gutenberg’s major success was the 42 lines Bible, the first book editions created by movable-type printing press. 

If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness – Jeff Bezos 

Jeff Bezos is a successful businessman rather than an inventor. Of course, he is an innovative spirit, otherwise Amazon would have faltered by now. The humble and ubiquitous printed book has finally met a competitor – Gutenberg the inventor, against the developer of the Kindle. What makes the head of Amazon a successor to the German inventor is the unostentatious concept of the Kindle. Gutenberg’s invention and the Kindle have one aspect in common: making the process through which people achieve knowledge easier. None of them developed books. Yet, both invented a technology that enables books to feed easier human minds.

Creativity led Bezos to come up with an idea to develop e-reading, based on existing technologies and other false starts in the industry. With increased e-books consumption, the market of readers started to turn their back on physical books. Bezos turned this into an advantage for his e-commerce business, which had initially thrived also as a book seller, by putting into practice an e-commerce solution. The businessman worked with a business idea: to come up with a solution before his competitors. 

Kindling an appreciation for pioneers 

Gutenberg’s typing technology, otherwise a simple one when analyzed with modern eyes, impacts our well-being to this very day, and is a foundation to what British historian Niall Ferguson termed the “killer apps” that enabled the ascension of the West. It made all of the other discoveries and their widespread dissemination possible. Ignorance, especially that imposed on others, became harder and harder, spurring social mobility and revolutionizing the engagement with one’s polity. Growing literacy rates meant not just an increase in productivity, but the ability to read pamphlets, news and commentary, making political ferment, for good and for worse, possible.

Gutenberg had no easy life. History teaches us that he was a genius as an inventor, unlucky as a man and awful as a business person. Gutenberg and Bezos have common characteristics such as creativity, future-time orientation, curiosity and visionary spirit. With the exception of men like Thomas Edison, looking back, many inventors foundered in their work, from multiple causes: hard times, periods of conflict, but most of them were simply not adept at doing business. Yet, it is they who grant us the most important discoveries. Modern inventors have solved some of the difficulties of earlier ones, by simply living in societies avid for novelties and efficiencies, where capital and managerial expertise can be married to their brilliance within companies, but they face new problems, such as the thorny issues surrounding intellectual property rights. The answer to the needs of inventors today is for them to be successful in business, which requires a constant flow of innovation, rather than risky leaps forward: small in contribution, but generous in number. Think of Gutenberg, who worked his entire life on one invention. Bezos would hardly be admiring his bank account if he were still working on his first idea. In modern societies, business people take calculated risks with their ideas and sometimes even lose their money. Their ideas are put into practice with help from people with technical knowledge. Centuries ago, Gutenberg had no ample resources to invest in his vision and neither was society as accommodating to men like him as it is now.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016