Book History, Episodes

22. The Devil’s in the Details

 

Back in the day, even printing a Bible required getting in league with the devil…printer devils, that is. Discover the legends and lores in this re-released and re-mastered version of a Book Owl classic…you know, back when I was beyond nervous when facing the microphone!

(This is a re-release of Episode 2 – Making a Deal with the Devil). There’s a new intro and the audio has been re-processed.)

Like what you hear?

The (Rough) Transcript

New Intro

(Not transcribed, but let’s just say I’ve been drowning in writing chores and didn’t have time to research, write, record, and edit a new episode this week. I will be back in a couple weeks with a new episode – hopefully – and a special announcement.)

Old Intro

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

So, these days you can click a button and have most any book printed on demand and in your hands in days, but it wasn’t always so quick and easy. And no, I’m not referring tot the days when you actually had to get off your butt and go to the bookstore and buy a book.

It wasn’t all that long ago that took a lot of effort to make a book. In fact, if you wanted a book printed you might even have had to make a deal with the devil….even if that book was a bible.

Sponsor Break

Before we delve into this devilish episode it’s time for a tiny sponsor break. I know, I know, no one likes ads, but this will be quick and painless. Podcasts aren’t the cheapest things to run. There’s hosting costs, equipment, and let me tell you, they take a lot of time. So, if you like what you’re hearing and if you’re able to, you can show your appreciation and support the podcast by visiting the book owl podcast dot com slash support where you’ll find several super inexpensive ways to help keep the show running.

Okay, that wasn’t so bad, was it. Now, let’s get on with the show and the devil really is in the details with this one.

How to Print a Book…Back in the Day

So even though we’re talking about devils, there’s no need to fear for your immortal soul (unless you’ve been very naughty). See back in the day, if you wanted a book or a newspaper, you had no choice…you had to get in league with the devil…a printer’s devil to be exact.

Of course the printing press is an invention worshipped by book nerds and we’ll explore it’s story some other time, but for now just know that up until relatively recently to make a book or newspaper, every single letter and every single space or punctuation mark on every single printed page had to arranged by a human hand…a very deft human hadn’t at that.

Okay, that’s bad enough to imagine, but not only did these someones have to lay down the letters of every word, they also had to do it in reverse so the words once printed would read correctly. So anyone out there complaining about how tricky it can be to format a document in Word, believe me, you’ve got nothing to complain about.

Ooh, Devils!!!

Anyway, as you can imagine, the work of a printer and typesetter was tedious, labor intensive work. But that work would be made a tiny bit easier if you had an assistant. And that assistant was called a printer’s devil.

This was usually a young boy, possibly an apprentice, whose main tasks would be to mix the ink and to fetch the letters as needed and to put the used letters back in the right place. And even though it’s highly likely that there were some serious child labor laws being broken, this wasn’t unskilled labor because these kids had to be somewhat literate in order to fetch the correct letter. Think about it, if you’re typesetting a word like SHOT you certainly don’t want some illiterate rapscallion mixing up your O’s and your I’s.

And there were some famous little devils, including Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Kellogg (yes, Mr Cornflakes and healthy living himself).

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part One

Alright none who can remember their grade school days on the playground know that little boys can be hellions, but why were these particular lads called devils?

There’s actually no clear answer on this, which of course means a slew of tales have sprouted up to answer it. Some of the tales are downright dull, while others have a wonderful dose of embellishment to them.

So the most boring explanation says that the fingers of these boys would be stained black from the ink. Since Satan is the lord of darkness, the dark fingers lead people to call the kids devils. Told you that was boring. Also, I would imagine the typesetters themselves had stained fingers as well, so the explanation also falls flat on my logic meter.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Two

The second tale is slightly more interesting and provides a nice little play on words. Okay, so the little letters that had to be arranged were cast onto tiny pieces metal. If you’ve seen how small the print is on old timey newspapers, you’ll get an idea of just how tiny those metal pieces were.

Anyway, this metal wasn’t titanium or anything and after so many uses the raised letters would wear down and anything printed using those letters would make the reader wonder if they’d developed sudden onset glaucoma.

Instead of tormenting their customers with having to needlessly visit the eye doctor, although that could have been a good side swindle, the worn type was tossed into a box so the metal could be melted down and re-cast. That box was called a hellbox and since it was these kids tossing things into the hellbox, they earned the name devils.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Three (My Favorite)

That’s not a bad behind the name story, but possibly my favorite one even though it’s a bit of a stretch starts with a partnership gone bad.

So Mr Printing Press himself, Johannes Gutenberg, had a business partner named Johann FUST – and no, I don’t know if you were required to be named John to work in the printing business. After his invention started revolutionizing the world, Big G started getting a big head. FUST got annoyed with Gutenberg’s attitude so he up and left one day. And he didn’t leave empty handed…he took all the machinery.

Right around this time the French court of Louis XI needed some new bibles. FUST nabbed up the commission. He also nabbed a fair amount of extra money for this commission because he told the king and all the king’s men that the bibles would be hand copied. This was how books were made before the printing press, and because it took a lot more work, it raised the price of each book.

After a reasonable amount of time FUST delivered the books…probably with a guilty twitch to his ink-stained fingers.

So, you know how when you come home with new books from the library or bookstore and you have to thumb through all of them? Well, Louis who must have a huge book nerd, did the same thing. As he was flipping and enjoying that new book smell, Louis noticed all the bibles were eerily similar. Too similar. After all, hand copying is often accompanied with transcription errors, ink blotches, and other problems.

But all these bibles were the exact same.

Now you’re probably thinking an advisor should go up to Louis and say that, “Hey we got this guy FUST who used to work with that printer guy Gutenberg, maybe he printed these bibles.” But that didn’t happen. I mean, this was the king after all and you don’t go around telling the king he got duped. So, the only excuse for such perfection had to have been that the devil had his hand in the bibles’ creation. FUST who might have only been accused of fraud ended up being jailed for witchcraft…and I bet Gutenberg was laughing the whole time.

Anyway, in a very roundabout way, this supposedly led to the term printer’s devils.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Four (The Most Logical)

There’s a fourth and final story, one that combines legend with logic, and to me this one makes the most sense.

When printing presses started to spread out across Europe the printers decided they needed their own patron demon ( because, who doesn’t, right?). His name was Titivillus. This wasn’t a newbie on the demon block. He’d been the patron demon of scribes and was the go-to demon to blame when a scribe made a mistake in his manuscript copying. Talk about blame shifting.

In the printing world, Titivillus was a trickster who would sneak in and, when no one was looking, rearrange the type leading to misspelled words…which is an excuse I’m going to start using in my own books and newsletters! Since the assistants were the ones bringing the letters, those kids must be in league with this demon and therefore they earned the name of printers devils.

Not bad, right?

Exorcists Need Not Apply

Anyway, wherever their name came from, printers devils were hard working little lads well into the early 1900s. As different methods of setting type and more efficient ways of printing evolved, the need for devils declined and soon devils were gone from the print shop altogether.

And not one single exorcist was needed.

You Want One More, Don’t You?

So that’s it for printer’s devils. Or is it? With every episode I provide my newsletter recipients some extra tidbit related to the show. And with this episode, they’ll be getting one more printer devil story straight from 1960s television. If you’re not already part of the flock, sign up for The Book Owl Podcast Newsletter at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact.

Update Time

Okay, one quick update to wrap things up. When I was first planning out this podcast, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my favorite shows and release episodes every single week. Now, if you saw the list of topics I’ve got jotted down in Ye Olde Podcast Notebook, you’d know I have plenty of material to do just that. What I don’t have is the time.

My primary focus, shall we say my day job, is writing and to keep churning out books, I’d basically have to give up on sleeping, eating, and cleaning out the guinea pig cages to be able to write, record, and edit a podcast episode every week. Hopefully, once I get the hang of all this podcasting busy work, I’ll be able to do weekly shows, but for now and probably for at least the first couple months, I’m going to keep myself from going bonkers by only doing biweekly shows which will appear every other Thursday.

Thanks and See You Later

Thanks for listening everyone. If you enjoyed this episode I’d love it if you could leave a review or simply tell someone about the show. If you do want to leave a review, you can do that in your favorite podcast app or on Podchaser, the IMDB of podcasts and I’ll toss a link to that in the show notes. Or, feel free to email me at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact. And, like I said, if you want to get even more out of each episode, be sure to subscribe to the book owl podcast newsletter on that same page.

Again, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!

Credits

The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, copyright 2021 all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com

Literacy, podcast, reading

The History of Eyeglasses: What Venice, Monks, and Syphilis Have to Do with Seeing Clearly

Hello Book Nerds!

It’s Episode 8 and this time we’re taking a peek at the amazing combination of historical events that turned eyeglasses from a luxury item used only by the wealthy to a household commodity.

From imprisoned Venetians to curing syphilis, the history of eyeglasses is more intriguing than it might seem at first glance (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Quick Update

In the update portion of the episode I mention that I’ve reworked Episodes 2 & 3 to try to improve the sound quality. Well, I’m happy to say, that all previous episodes have now been updated.

Again, they’re still not perfect, but they are a bit better. I’ve just gotten a new, highly recommended microphone, so hopefully my sound quality issues will continue to fade away.

Thanks for sticking with me during this learning process!

Behind the Scenes

I’ve had the idea for this episode since the show started, and I honestly hadn’t planned for an episode on eyeglasses to match up to an episode whose number (on its side) looks like a pair of eyeglasses.

But that’s just another of the happenstance events that kept cropping up as I researched the story of eyewear.

I’d heard about the Venetian glassmakers from the writer Steven Johnson, and I recalled something about glasses and paper making from James Burke in his book The Day the Universe Changed.

But as the research continued, I couldn’t believe the way the dates from an Arabic text to the printing press fell into place one after the other, leading to glasses being such a common item. More than once it left me thinking, “Wow, that is a crazy bit of luck.”

Anyway, I hope you find the episode as fascinating as I did researching it. Enjoy!!!

As usual, clicking the image below will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options.

Listening links…

Links mentioned…

Images…

I usually save images as bonuses for my newsletter subscribers, but since they’re getting something extra special this time around, I thought I’d include photos with this post to help give you a better idea of a few things mentioned in Episode 8.

Of course, if you’d like to join the flock and get regular bonus tidbits, be sure to sign up today to get the Book Owl in your inbox every other week.

A stylish pair of an example of the first eyeglasses. (Image from the California Optometric Assoication)
Tommaso da Modena’s painting of Cardinal Hugh St. Cler wearing his spectacles. (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)
Stylin”!!! (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

It’s episode 8 and if you turn the number 8 on its side, what’s it look like? Okay, it kind of looks like a drunken snowman who’s toppled over, but it also resembles something that makes reading possible for about 65% of the population.

Before we jump into this episode I just want to remind you that if you have been enjoying the show, you can help keep the episodes coming in several inexpensive ways. Whether it’s buying the Book Owl a virtual cup of coffee or sending the owl a monthly snack, your support is very much appreciated. So, if you have an extra couple dollars or euros or pounds, please head over to thebookowlpodcast.com/support. And yes, that link will be in the show notes.

Alright let’s get a closer look at toppled over snowmen. No, wait, sorry. Take two. Let’s take a look at eyeglasses.

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, how boring and off topic can you get. Isn’t this show supposed to be about books.”

Well, okay, to look at them, glasses aren’t the most exciting things on the planet (although Elton John’s collection might be the exception), but glasses happened to coincide with a couple of other inventions to truly boost literacy and people’s love of the written word.

But the first glasses, kind of like Elton John’s, weren’t used for reading. It was all about style. See, the Emperor Nero, he liked to wear emerald lenses, and that’s emerald the actual gem, not emerald tinted. Anyway he wore these to gladiator fights because he believed they offered some sort of health benefit. And if the emperor did it, the masses soon followed, so Nero may have started the first optical wear fashion trend.

But that has nothing to do with reading.

The idea of using a curved lens to magnify things probably came about soon after glass was invented. I mean it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to picture a glassmaker setting a piece of work down and noticing whatever was underneath looked bigger, right?

And back in the 2nd century Ptolemy was already writing about this very phenomenon, but it wouldn’t be put to much use until the Arab scholar Ibn al-Heitam in the 10th century first suggested that glass could be used to aid with visual problems as people aged. Unfortunately, he didn’t push this idea and it wasn’t until his book of optics was translated into Latin in the 1200s that the idea took hold.

Now this was back when monks would spend their entire days in scriptoriums copying books letter by letter, often very tiny letter by letter. If you’ve ever seen these manuscripts. So, once a monk reached a certain age, his vision would be fried and he could no longer do this work. When al-Heitam’s book of optics was translated, older monks quickly adopted the idea of using reading stones so they could continue to scribble away and feel useful. And when I say quickly I mean quickly because within only a few years of al-Heitam’s book being translated, people were already writing of using lenses “to read the smallest letters.”

But to start, as I said, these lenses weren’t true lenses, they were just reading stones. And these things were about an inch thick and maybe four inches in diameter and made of rock crystal and quartz that was curved on one side and flat on the other. You would then place flat side on a page and move along enlarging the words underneath as you read.

Meanwhile, right about this same time over on the islands that make up Venice, a renaissance of glassmaking was happening. And competition was fierce between the glassmakers to come up with the best techniques to make the best glass possible. That competition was so strong the guild masters kept their glassmakers, or cristalleri, basically as prisoners on the island they happened to work on. This kept the cristalleri from flouncing around on gondolas spilling trade secrets to the cristalleri on another island.

The rules were so strict that if a cristalleri left his island, he could face death. It was a bit over the top, but this forced isolation meant intense collaboration and their glassmaking skills skyrocketed.

This boon in glassmaking not only meant clearer glass, but also thinner glass that could be shaped more precisely. No source I could find knew who first took that better quality glass, stuck it into a wooden holder, and used it it help people see better, or exactly when but most sources are certain it happened in Italy. What we do know is that in 1306, Giordano of Pisa gave a sermon in which he’s quoted as saying, “It is not 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.”

And I’m going to guess that this probably happened near Venice because by the time this sermon was given there already were records on the books in which the Venice guilds regulated the sales of eyeglasses.

These glasses weren’t what we have today that fit neatly on your face. Instead, two lenses were set in two separate wooden frames. These frames were then attached at the base to kind of pivot so you could open them to fit the width of your eyes. Which is probably why we say a pair of glasses.

Anyway it’s a monk who was the subject of the first painting to show someone wearing these glasses. The painting dates from 1352 – I know, so many dates, sorry. The painting was done by Tommaso da Modena and it shows Cardinal Hugh St. Cler with a pair of these glasses balanced on his nose as he’s working away on a document.

And it’s kind of significant that we’ve got a cardinal in the painting. See, glasses weren’t cheap. There was no $49 special being offered at the Lenscrafters or anything. Glasses were a luxury item that signified wealth and power and were owned only by a few of the elite.

But, remember Giordano of Pisa? Well he had a colleague by the name of Friar Alessandro Della Spina who didn’t think this was fair. I mean, literacy rates were pretty low, but those who did read really needed to read even after they managed to live to the ripe old age of forty when many peoples’ eyes start getting wonky. Of course, mine have been wonky since I was three, but that’s a whole issue in itself.

Anyway Alessandro somehow dipped his hands in the lens making business and made pairs of glasses for whoever needed them. And Giordano, while delivering a good bit of marketing for his friend, also proved he was a bit snarky because he said, “Glasses were first made by someone who didn’t want to share. Spina made them and shared them with everyone with a willing and cheerful heart.” Good on you, Spina!

Glasses still weren’t owned by the masses, but they were being seen and used more frequently.

So this is all happening in the second half of the 1300s. That’s also right about the time when Europeans were figuring out how to make paper cheaper and more efficiently. Since books had been made with parchment or vellum, which was expensive and laborious to make, this paper making set up things perfectly for things to come. Because when the 1400s role around, our friend Johannes Gutenberg invents his printing press. Books and journals, which had all been hand copied before and were insanely expensive, suddenly dropped in price and became more plentiful.

People wanted that printed material. But they also wanted to be able to read it, and thanks to the eyeglass business loosening up, glasses were also more plentiful and soon became a household commodity.

I just love it when history things like this fall into place like that. I mean think about how amazing this blend of events is. You’ve got an Arabic book on optics being translated, monks latching on to the idea of being able to keep working into old age, the lockdown of glass makers forcing them to improve their craft, the invention of glasses, a more efficient way to make paper, and the printing press all coming together.

If any one of those things hadn’t happened, maybe the printing press would have needed longer to take off and maybe reading would have languished behind another couple hundred years, which might have delayed the Renaissance and other leaps in thinking. Who knows, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only a couple decades after the printing press was first invented that the first eyeglasses shop opened up in Strasbourg….the city where the printing press was born.

So just to wrap up a couple more moments in glasses history, up to this point people knew lenses needed to be convex to do their trick, but no one really understood why. In 1604 Johannes Kepler – he’s the guy who figured out the planets travel in elliptical orbits – also figured out the different properties and uses of convex versus concave lenses, and about 20 years later in Spain someone figured out how to create different grades of lenses for different vision problems.

Of course through all this we’re still stuck with the pivoting style frames you’d have to balance on your nose or hold in front of your eyes. It would be the 1700s before glasses got arms and were held together by a bridge across the nose. Yeah, they didn’t exactly rush into that invention.

And now comes my favorite bit of glasses trivia… in the 1800s lenses were tinted green, not in honor of Emperor Nero’s fashion sense, but because they believed it cured syphilis. Who knows, maybe that’s why Nero wore his emerald lenses.

Okay, back to what this has to do with books. Some of you lucky listeners may not need glasses to read, but 75% of adults need some sort of vision correction and 65% of those wear reading glasses. We know that kids with undiagnosed vision issues are resistant to reading, lag behind in school, and may never learn to enjoy books. I personally wouldn’t be able to read anything but the largest of large print books without my glasses. So, in my opinion, glasses are a vital part of literacy and enjoying books and in being a life long reader.

And let me wrap up with a little public service announcement. If you have old eyeglasses sitting around in a drawer you can clear out that drawer by donating your glasses to several charities including Unite for Sight, Eyes of Hope, the Lions Club, and many others. Usually your optometrist will have a drop off box as will eyeglasses shops.

Okay everyone, that is it for the show. If you want to stick around for my update, that would be great, if not, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!

As far as podcast news goes, along with episode 3 which I told you about last time, I have now updated episode 2 and tried to fix an issue I had with the volume level. The trouble I have is that some of these sound issues don’t come through on my audio software and are only apparent after the file is uploaded onto the podcast sites. So, it’s kind of a nightmare to hunt down these problems. Anyway, it’s still not perfect, but until I get motivated to completely re-record these first episodes, it’ll have to do.

In my writing world, I have finished the edits on both my short story I wrote in June and on the first book of my Cassie Black trilogy. I’ll be reading over the book this week for what I hope is the last time. I also have a bunch specials going on this month, including some half price deals on my box sets, so if you want to try out my work and save some money, I’ll have a link in the show notes that will direct you to a post where I’ve listed all my deals for the month.

Alright, that really is it. Thanks so much for listening and be sure to get your eyes checked!!

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.

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