Brain Pickings

How the Gutenberg Press Embodies Combinatorial Creativity

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From metallurgy to the division of labor, or why Gutenberg was a typesetting despot.

Brain Pickings celebrated its seventh birthday last week. Since day one, it has been my belief that we create by amalgamating different pieces of knowledge from various fields, with various sensibilities, and from various time periods — knowledge that may seem useless but ultimately isn’t — into new combinations that we call our own ideas; by cultivating a certain way of operating that allows for the remixing of our existing ideas; by creating a rich personal micro-culture that lends itself to such alchemy. Creativity is, in other words, combinatorial and it’s reliant upon a vast, eclectic pool of such intellectual resources. Brain Pickings has always been a sort of library for these diverse building blocks of combinatorial creativity.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library), applied mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman explores how Gutenberg’s printing press embodied the power of combinatorial creativity, and did so to a degree that far exceeds what the popular mythology around it would have us believe:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful. He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing. Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Early wooden printing press,1568, capable of producing up to 240 impressions per hour; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that “creativity is just connecting things,” it’s more than that — it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place — it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right “associative trails” running through that catalog.

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