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NOVA: A TO Z: How Writing Changed The World

Antique printing press.
© Alice Day/Shutterstock
Antique printing press.

Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV / On demand now with KPBS Passport!

NOVA presents a two-part series, A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" and A TO Z "How Writing Changed The World", exploring the surprising origins and transformative impact of writing and printing. The programs trace the first known written languages from ancient Egypt to the invention of the first alphabet and eventually to the printing press, which ushered Western civilization out of the Middle Ages and into the Scientific Revolution.

Just as handwritten records changed how societies work, the printing press transformed the spread of information, igniting the Industrial Revolution. How did technologies — from pen to paper to printing press — make it all possible? Writing systems allowed leaders to establish common laws, but it was print that allowed written word to be distributed among the masses. In A TO Z "How Writing Changed The World," Dr. Brody Neuenschwander explores the origins of print from papyrus to the printing press.

NOVA: A to Z: How Writing Changed the World: Promo

Western Europe depended on parchment--a writing surface made from animal hide, which was expensive and time consuming to make. Combined with that, the labor-intensive process of copying books one at a time by hand made them scarce and precious commodities.

A medieval scribe could not work for much more than six hours in a day because of the intricacy of the work. A team of craftsmen working in many different fields could spend more than a year producing just one copy of a hand-written and illustrated Bible.

How Medieval Parchment is Made

Then, around 1450, in the German town of Mainz, a goldsmith, inventor, and entrepreneur named Johannes Gutenberg began experimenting with a molten alloy of lead and a hand-held mold. He created a machine that would help speed up the process of putting words on a page — the printing press.

Suddenly, with a single printing press two laborers could turn out 2,500 pages in one day. In two weeks, a whole book could be printed in 1,250 copies. Within 50 years, millions of books had been printed. The printing press not only revolutionized information technology but propelled Europe to the forefront of innovation.

The Printing Press Revolutionized the Spread of Information

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If you missed the first episode, A TO Z "The First Alphabet," it is available to stream on demand.

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NOVA productions by DOX Productions/Films à Cinq for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with Arté France and the BBC. Produced by Hugh Sington. Designed by Brody Neuenschwander. Co-produced by Martin De La Fouchardière. Written and Directed by David Sington. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.