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Ἡ τέχνη γράφοντος

“The Technē of Writing”

Writing Lecture, Part 1


τέχνη (techne) is the Greek word that gives us words like technique, technical, technological, technician, techno, and, of course, Louisiana Tech.  According to the OED, it is "An art, skill, or craft; a technique, principle, or method by which something is achieved or created. Also: a product of this, a work of art."  The τέχνη of writing reaches back thousands of years, and technical writers ignore this history at their peril.

We begin our study of technological advances in technical writing with sticks in mud and feathers marking on animal skin parchment. This is probably the most important lecture of the quarter because it lays the groundwork for everything to come.  Naturally you don't believe me.  So to quote Hans and Franz, hear me now and listen later.  Fortunately, this lecture will be here when you are ready for it.

Part I: Language

En ArchhIn the beginning was the word (John 1:1)

John 20

  1. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
  2. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.   

While many animals and even plants are able to communicate through signs, the human capacity for language far exceeds what we see elsewhere.  Fortunately for us, this ability is pre-technological and thus beyond the limits of this course.

What isgermane to the course is to recognize that writing developed as a way to deal with the natural limitations of speech. A speech act is limited to a specific time and place;  writing extends the reach of the speech to a broader audience removed in time, place, or both.

Part II: Cave Paintings

The oldest extant human writing that I'm aware of is cave painting, some of which is 30,000 years old.  The technology involves would include paint, some kind of brush, a surface (the cave interior), and lighting to see what they were doing.  This isn't a written language yet, but it does give us insight into human aesthetics; after all these millennia, the art is not only recognizable but beautiful.

Part III: Etched in Clay, Chiseled in Stone — Whatever.

Baked clay and stone have similar qualities; the big difference is in the ease of creation and the beauty of the finished product.  Clay is soft enough that the scribe can use a sharp stick or stylus; rock requires chisels; therefore, it takes longer and is more expensive. 

Tablets in Cuneiform (3300 bc)

  1. Stylus
  2. Tablet 1
  3. Tablet 5: Epic of Gilgamesh
    They wrote using pictographs, which changed to syllabograms later.
  4. Current uses of this technology.
    1. Writing in wet concrete.  Who can resist?
    2. Cemetaries
    3. Vietnam memorial
    4. Tech bricks
    5. Over building entrances.  Compare the old Ruston State Bank inscription with the sign on the building to the left. The inscriptions on banks, government buildings, and similar institutions imply strength and permanence.  "I'm Ruston State Bank; I kept the deposites safe from Bonnie and Clyde; I'll keep your deposites safe too."  The neighbor to the left is flashier but less reliable.  "I'm Paramount 'ealthcare  'onsultants.  Hurry in; I'll be gone before the rest of my letters drop off."

Drawbacks of this method

  1. These forms are by their nature monumental; they last a long time, but they are incredibly heavy and hard to move. 
  2. Each inscription is bulky, limiting the amount of information you can record.  Imagine going to class with a physics textbook etched in baked clay.
  3. They are expensive to produce.

History of Writing, Part 2

Part IV: Scrolls in Hebrew, Greek, & Latin

There is a debate over who created the alphabet. 

The Phoenicians created a Consonantal Alphabet, which is an alphabet made up only of consonants.  mgn tht (imagine that).  The Hebrew alphabet is derived from Phoenician. Also, Hebrew is written from right to left.

Greek had the first full alphabet of consonants and vowels.  Rome followed suit with Latin.  Both are written left to right.  But the scribal techniques are otherwise similar among the three languages.

  1. Written on papyrus or parchment.
    1. Paryrus Reeds (bullrushes)
    2. Making papyrus
  2. Parchment (animal skin)
    1. Making parchment
  3. Written with quills from a goose or flat brushes.  The shape of the quill helps determine the shape of the letters. 
    1. A modern pencil or ball-point pen tends to produce the same width line regardless of direction of the stroke.
    2. The shape of the traditional nib means that strokes in one direction are narrower than strokes in another.  The art of the scribe was eventually passed down to the printer.
  4. Written with homemade ink.
    1. Carbon ink.  Soot, glue, and water.
    2. Sopher's ink. A composite of iron-salts, nutgall, and gum, and water.  This is the ink still in use today to produce Torahs.  I'm not sure why, because soot is universally available (it's actually a waste product), and the carbon in it is permanently black.  Perhaps the other recipe produces a superior black ink, but there are two important characteristics of this ink to note:
      1. The acid in the nutgall gradually eats into the papyrus or parchment, making the surface more uneven.
      2. The iron slowly oxidizes, making the ink fade on the page.  It doesn't fade to a rust color; it combines with the other pigments to form a deep brown. The text on most of my site is a close match to rusty scribal ink, as you can see in the bar below:
  5. Wound up into a scroll.
  6. The Torah Scroll is still being regularly produced and used in synagogues today.
    1. Watch the Dedication of a new Torah Scroll
    2. Torah = Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
    3. Each book was originally a separate book, a separate scroll.  Books were rather short: otherwise the papyrus or parchment tended to crack, and it took too long to get from one section of the book to another.
    4. Takes 6 months to a year to make. Requires a full-time סופ sopher (scribe) who needs to be paid a full-time professional wage ($50,000 — $75,000 per scroll)
    5. All adult men in the synagogue help write it to fulfill the command that every man write one torah scroll in his lifetime.  Women contribute too nowdays.
    6. Ordinary people don't own books. Too expensive.  Most common people didn't read. Jewish boys like Jesus & Peter WOULD have learned to read at Hebrew school.  One scroll per village not uncommon.
      Judaism therefore produced many scholars in the ancient world.

Part V: The Codex

Codex Siniaticus

Effects of changing to the Codex  

  1. You can get from one section to another quickly, hopping from the front to the back to the middle at will.
  2. A codex can hold much more information than a scroll.  This transformed the way the the church thought about its sacred texts. 
    1. Jesus and other Jews referred to their sacred texts as the scriptures, (which means the writings, from the word script).  They understood clearly that they were by separate people writing at separate times.
    2. Christians could put all their sacred texts into one volume. They began to think of all their scriptures as one book.  They even called it τὸ βιβλίον "To Biblion," "the book".  This is where we get the word "Bible."
  3. Codices are cheaper than scrolls, but still quite expensive, especially the fancy ones.  The first full handwritten Bible since the Renaissance has recently been completed, the Saint John's Bible.  This Bible was made by the Queen of England's calligrapher, complete with illustrations.  For the gold ink, he used real gold.  The handwritten edition cost $10,000,000 to produce, but you can get a copy for $175,000.  Or you can buy a house.

Part VI: Printing Press

Effects of the printing press

The printing press had major social impacts.
  1. Many more people learned to read, or at least their children did.
  2. Democracy (political revolution)
  3. Reformation (religious revolution)
  4. Scientific revolution.  Innovations spread quickly and widely and sparked more innovations.
  5. Information boom.  Became difficult to keep up.  Scholars narrowed their focus to narrower specializations.
  6. For more information on the print era, Wikipedia has a good history of printing.


Part VII: The Digital Age

The design of digital information was initially quite wretched.  Here is a screenshot from my first computer, a Kaypro 2X.  The screen was small and the pixels huge; the letter strokes were all one pixel wide.  Change fonts? Forget about it. 


What changed? Steve Jobs dropped out of college. Let’s let him tell us his story:

So he didn't stop going to school — he quietly attended classes that interested him.  One of these was calligraphy.  Years later when he was designing the Apple computers, he decided that his computers should replicate the beautiful fonts of print.

The current situation is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to design and fonts.  My laptop currently has 1,996 fonts installed.  They are ancient, medieval, renaissance, and Klingon and are dumped into a directory that lists them alphabetically.  The past can guide us in making our choices for the future. In addition to all the fonts, he popularized the GUI (Graphical User Interface) that enables WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editing. Sophisticated software allows us to apply all the traditional principles of document design to electronic documents, along with allowing new types of design not possible with paper documents. Like embedded commencement speaches.

This page, for example, follows the format of the Louisiana Anthology.  The page is written on a papyrus background (why papyrus? It's optimized for scrolling!).  I picked Caslon font after spending an evening pouring over maps of colonial Louisiana.  Caslon, a British font developed in the 1750s, was the closest match to the maps that is commonly installed on computers.  Caslon is a computer font based on a print font based on the ebb and flow of the scribal quill.  And the ink may look black at first, but on close inspection you will find that it is the dark brown color of rusty scribal ink:

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