Renaissance Technologies

youtube screencap.

youtube screencap.

If the public library was the proto-internet, then the book was both a trusty storage device and an early website. This is essentially how MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences approaches books in the course “Making Books: The Renaissance and Today,” in which students learn about bookmaking technology.

The course, led by MIT historian Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel, sees students making paper and building a handset printing press. The idea is to illustrate that people in the distant past were also clever technologists, while also reconnecting students to the notion of making instead of merely consuming.


This semester past, MIT Hobby Shop director Ken Stone led the students in the building of the printing press. First, students milled a huge reclaimed wooden beam from an old building, then they worked the wood in various ways until they had assembled a screw-type letterpress printer commonly used throughout the early modern period. During the build, students toured a Colonial-style print shop in Boston called Edes & Gill, paying particular attention to an early handset press like the one they were building. There they picked the brains of printmaster Gary Gregory.

The full article is at The Creators Project. Very, very, very cool, this. I’d love to learn how to do this.


  1. rq says

    How awesome would this be. Just to know, and also as a way of preserving these particular skills. Fun! (And a whole lot of labour.)

  2. says

    Yes, it would be! I would love to take a class like that. I already know how to make paper, but that’s where my knowledge stops.

  3. DonDueed says

    When I was young, my family visited Colonial Williamsburg where I saw a printer using this type of press. It struck me as being a lot of labor and drudgery — for a big payoff at the end. It was a world-changer, that machine.

  4. says

    Don Dueed:

    It was a world-changer, that machine.

    Yes. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about teaching this once again, that it not only brings home a great sense of history, but just how badly people wanted this, the excitement there was over the printed page, the potential of books. There’s a great deal of awe and wonder within all that labour.

  5. Blattafrax says

    You can do something similar in my home town, Basel. Come and visit -- it’s a good place for a day or two’s holiday -- and go to the paper museum (Papiermühle). There you can do the whole process from making paper to printing a design on it. Even better if you’re a kid, but I’ve done it as an adult too.

  6. kaleberg says

    When I was MIT the Visual Language Workshop had a huge offset press. It was a marvel of mechanical, pneumatic and hydraulic engineering. It had a rotary mechanical system for pressing the ink covered plate against the page, a suction based page feeder, an ink delivery system and a system for sluicing ink off of the plate between presses. It was amazing to watch. I have no idea if they still have it there, but it would be great if it was.

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