By: CELINA ARZOLA
As far as we know, the very first people to transcribe symbols onto moveable materials was an ancient group known as Sumerians who lived in Southern Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. The Sumerians devised a “cuneiform” alphabet (a system that consists of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs), the symbols of which were etched into clay tablets with a triangle shaped stylus called a “Calamus”. This allowed the clay to dry or to be fired in a kiln to make them last as long as possible. The Sumerians are believed to be the first people to ever use the Cuneiform script, which itself is the earliest known written system in the world.
Papyrus scrolls date back to around 2400 B.C., containing the earliest surviving written words. Papyrus is a very thick paper like material that is made from the “pith” (centre of the stem) of the papyrus plant, a reed like swamp plant that used to be found in abundance along the Nile river. This “pith” was cut into thin strips, pressed together and then glued and dried to form a thin flat surface that could be written on. These scrolls were often stored in wooden tubes to protect them.
The standard writing system now -left to right- was invented in 600 B.C. by the consensus of Mediterranean cultures. Before this was decided, many cultures wrote left to right, right to left, up to down, and even down to up.
In 200 B.C. the Romans and Greeks developed the wax tablets. The tablets were essentially blocks of wood coated in wax which allowed them to be written upon using a stylus and later erased for reuse. These tablets were sometimes joined together at one end with cords (like an early form of ring binder) to form a “codex” (original latin meaning “wood” but later known as a collection of bound pages); this is the earliest known form of a bound book. The “codex” became very popular around Europe, replacing the scroll.
Recent archaeological discoveries of paper with writing on it (dating from 8 B.C.) have been reported to be found near Dunhuang while paper had been used in China for wrapping and padding since 200 B.C. The process of papermaking, regardless of scale, involves making a mixture of fibers in water to form a suspension and then allowing this suspension to drain through a screen so that a mat of fibers remains. This is then pressed and dried to make paper. After the paper is dry, it is often run between heavy rollers to produce a harder writing surface.
The very first book was printed on paper in China using a block of wood that had characters carved in reverse relief. Ink was then placed on the block of wood to create a print on paper. This technique is known as “block printing”, or in this case, “woodblock printing”, and was originally used as early as 220 A.D. as a means of printing on cloth.
In 1639 A.D. the Puritans arrived in the new land of opportunity, and they brought with them North America’s very first printing press. This press was specifically transported to print America’s very first book, “The Bay Psalm” which was published at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640 A.D.
In 1935, the very first Penguin paperbacks were published, founded by Sir Allen Lane which began life as an print of the publishers at Bodley Head. The general perception of paperback books did not appeal to Bodley Head. 1937 brought Penguin’s first books, that were designed to educate the reading public rather than entertain. The second World War did not affect Penguin as much as other publishers, and by 1940, another print was launched, this time aimed at the children’s market.
From the clay-tablet to the humble paperback, books have made a remarkable evolution.