Tuesday, February 09, 2010

With Thanks To Gutenberg

"Dad, what do you think was the most important invention in history?" It's Sunday, I'm still sick, and Eli and I are driving a few minutes from home to try out a new unicycle trail.

"Well, it could be the wheel," I say.

"Who invented the wheel?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say. "Sometimes I think about inventions in terms of which one was most amazing. The wheel was really, really important, but I don't think people were stunned when they saw it. What do you think was the most amazing invention ever?"

"I don't know," he says. "The pencil?"

"The pencil?"

"Yes," he says. "I think it's really incredible that you can move your hand and writing appears."

"That is pretty amazing," I say. "But I think the most amazing invention of all time was the balloon. No one had ever been able to float above the ground before. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be a few hundred feet above the ground, or what people thought when they first saw a balloon sailing by? It must have felt like a miracle."

"I wish I had been there," he says. "Hey, what about paper? Paper must have been really amazing?"

"That's a good one," I say. "Paper is always considered one of the most important inventions ever. It made it possible to record and save knowledge. Oh, and along with that, the printing press was huge."

"The printing press?" he asks.

"The printing press made it possible to make copies of things mechanically," I say. "Before then, everything had to be copied by hand. If someone wanted a copy of a book, they had to copy every page themselves."

"That's impossible," he says.

"Almost," I say. "The printing press made it possible to make thousands of copies of a book. It democratized information so that everyone could become educated. Before that, there were thousands of scholars who did nothing but make copies of books by hand. But because there were so few copies, only a very few people had access to books.

"Wow," Eli says. "Did YOU have access to books?"

"This is probably the point where I should mention that the printing press was invented over five hundred years ago, not in my lifetime," I say.

"Oh," he says.

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