Cultural History of Mass Communications

Oral or preliterate cultures are those without a written language, some existing thousands of years ago and some still functioning today. More than 5,000 years ago, alphabets were developed independently in several places around the world.  The initial complexity with picture based alphabets, requiring a huge number of symbols to convey even the simplest idea, meant that only a very select few, the intellectual elite, could read or write.  Culture slowly expanded, using symbols to represent sounds rather than objects or ideas around 1800 B.C. with the Sumerians.   The syllable alphabet slowly developed, and then flowered in Greece around 800 B.C.  For orders to be placed, deals arranged, manifests compiled, and records kept, writing that was easy to learn, use, and understand was required.

A medium was necessary to carry this new form of communication.  The Sumerians had used clay tablets, but the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans eventually employed papyrus (rolls of sliced strips of reed pressed together).  Around 100 B.C. the Romans began using parchment (A writing material made from prepared animal skins), and in A.D. 105 a paper making process was perfected employing a mixture of pressed mulberry tree bark, water, rags, and a sophisticated frame for dying and stretching the resulting sheets of paper.  The paper making technology made its way to Europe some 600 years later.  With the coming of literacy, people could accumulate a body of knowledge and transmit that knowledge from one generation to another.  However in the newly literate cultures, writers could reach only those literate few that held their handwritten scrolls or letters.  The printing press would change this, making it possible to duplicate communication, thereby expanding our ability to communicate with one another.  Printing and the printing press existed long before Johannes Guttenberg perfected his process in or around 1446.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this development.  Guttenberg, however, was a poor businessman.  He stressed quality over quantity, in part because of his reverence for the book he was printing, the Bible.  He used the highest quality paper and ink and turned out far fewer volumes than he otherwise could have.   Other printers however, quickly saw the true economic potential of Guttenberg’s invention.  The first Guttenberg Bible appeared in 1456.  By the end of the century, 44 years later, printing operations existed in 12 European countries, and the continent was flooded with 20 million volumes of 7,000 titles in 35,000 editions.  Although Guttenberg developed his printing press with a limited use in mind, printing Bibles, the cultural effects of mass printing have been profound.

By the mid-18th Century the printing press had become one of the engines driving the Industrial revolution. Industrialization affects increased leisure time and expendable cash with the spread of literacy resulting in a large and growing audience for printed information and entertainment.  By the mid-19th century, a mass audience and the means to reach it existed.


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