Ben’s Reconstituted Printshop

I’ve been off for a week . . . not psychologically, but physically.

My daughter and I went to Pennsylvania to visit colleges. She’s going next year, I just wanted to revisit my young adulthood.

Anyway . . . we visited University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and had a day to kill, so we did the tourist thing. We saw Independance Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the entire 8 block area where almost all of the history of the entire United States of America took place.

After the fact, I’m convinced that the most important change in the last 230 years is the advent of security equipment. We had to go through a lot of it. Button Gwinnett would have never made it . . . the brass on his waistcoat would have set off the alarm system. The wisdom of screening Amish visitors for shoe bombs is a story for another day, though. What I really want to write about today is Ben Franklin’s printshop.

We visited Franklin Courtyard, which is where Ben built his house. Actually, Ben’s wife built the house, because Ben was kicking up his heels in France. There wasn’t much left of the original except the hole for Ben’s outhouse. It seems that Ben’s grandkids were more interested in real estate than statesmanship, publishing or inventing. Land values had increased near the waterfront, so they ripped down Ben’s famous house and built condominiums, or the 19th century equivalent thereof. So, there’s really very little of the original Franklin there.

The house must have been pretty fantastic for the time. It had indoor plumbing of sorts and a unique ventilation system that Ben designed to draw air and steam out of the kitchen. None of this can be seen, it’s all been torn down. All that’s left is the holes for the privy, and those have been completely scoured by archaeological types.

There is a great reconstituted printshop, though, put together with equipment that was kind of current for the period. They’ve even built a facsimile of Ben’s letterpress. The press is new, but according to the pressman, the wood used to build it is 200 years old. I’m still digesting the importance of this singular fact.

The pressman, who is a certified United States Park Ranger (and thus exempt from getting his shoes screened), was producing unauthorized copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack on the press at an astounding speed of about one sheet every 10 minutes. He claimed that he could achieve a speed of 3 sheets/minute, but we did not observe this degree of productivity. In fact, he seemed much more interested in talking with the tourists than getting the daily production out.

I was fascinated. Even assuming a snail’s pace for production (180 sheets/hour compared to 10M on a good press), it was obvious what a massive technological breakthrough the printing press must have been. Setting type took hours, creating a graphic required the painstaking process of creating a woodcut; but once the type was set it could be reproduced inexpensively and exactly.

Now, as I type this entry on my trusty PowerBook, I wonder where Gutenberg’s technology will wind up. Will the next generation even need paper? How soon will it be before my “state of the art” printshop is exhibited at a national park?

“This is how they did it back then.” echoes in my ears, and the grey hairs in my beard are becoming more numerous by the day.


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