Editorial | Published:

The Caxton Exhibition

    Naturevolume 16pages177178 (1877) | Download Citation



    THE exhibition just opened at South Kensington to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first authentic publication issued from an English press, is one that must appeal to all who can read, and possesses an interest for the man of science from various points of view. We need not repeat the many platitudes that have been uttered and are now likely to be reiterated on the vast importance of the invention of printing by means of movable types. It was a gift to the people of Europe of a pair of intellectual seven-leagued boots wherewith to tread the path of culture; progress during the last 400 years has been beyond all proportion more rapid than during any previous period, and while no doubt other causes have been at work, the strongest impulse has been received from the invention so interestingly illustrated at South Kensington. Mr. Gladstone, in his speech on Saturday, stated that he did not think the invention of movable types in itself anything very extraordinary, and wondered that it had not been blundered on long before the time of Gutenberg and Fust. But the same might be said of most inventions in their first rude forms; we who are accustomed to locomotive engines and ocean-going steamers, for example, are apt to wonder how the world was so long in hitting on these applications of steam. But the truth is that in art as in nature no stage is reached by a leap; it requires a collocation of many little circumstances before any new form is ripe for development. And probably, if we could minutely trace the precedents of the invention of printing, we might find that it was the most natural thing possible that it should have taken place just when it did and not before. Probably all the material conditions or “environment” may have reached the proper stage a century before the actual invention, but then there was no Gutenberg or Fust (or whoever the genius was, for this is no place to discuss the much-discussed question) with the requisite discernment to perceive this, and the practical skill to proceed in the direction indicated by the conditions. It is curious that all the extant remains of the work of the earliest known printers are really wonderful in beauty of execution, which makes one doubtful if we have any of the very earliest specimens, and whether the date of invention should not be pushed further back than the accepted one.

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