In the MIT History Workshop — Where Building a Printing Press Illuminates Human Systems

School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Editor's Note: This spring, as part of a new course offered by Concourse and the history department, students built a handset printing press. The following article about this hands-on class appeared in the SHASS news.

A group of MIT students briefly put away their cell phones this spring to concentrate on a much older information storage and retrieval device: the book. 

Students build a hand-set printing press for the humanities class Making Books: The Renaissance and Today In a hands-on humanities class — Making Books: The Renaissance and Today (21H.343) — students gained insights about early books and book-making technology, not least by actually making paper and building a handset printing press, the kind of press on which the great documents of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution were printed.

MIT historian Anne McCants, who co-taught the class with Jeffrey Ravel, head of the History section, says, "One of the values of making something that seems prosaic, especially something that is now as common as paper, is learning that we moderns are not the only clever ones. People in the past were clever too, and they also knew some things we don't."

"Most of us are now divorced from the process of making the things we use," she explained. "We wear textiles every day but only a few specialists now understand how fibers are made and combined. In the 15th century, however, nearly everyone lived in close proximity to textile makers, and the essential properties of fibers and construction processes were familiar to the general population. That kind of familiarity is very important for being able to innovate with materials..."

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