Communication

Technology has always driven and mediated human communication and all its forms can be found within the Library.

By Cambridge University Library

Lines of Thought: Communication (2016) by University of CambridgeCambridge University Library

Sumerian clay tablet (ca 2,200 BCE) by Ab-kid-kidCambridge University Library

Early Writing

This clay tablet, made by a Sumerian scribe in an office around 2200 BCE, is the oldest example of writing in Cambridge University Library. It uses cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script produced using a reed stylus.

Inscriptions on bone: Oracle bones (1400-1200 BCE) by UnknownCambridge University Library

Inscriptions on bone:

Oracle bones are amongst the earliest written artefacts and contain the oldest known records of Chinese script. The ox shoulder-blades and pieces of turtle shell date from the Shang dynasty which ruled central China from the sixteenth to the eleventh century BCE. They were used to divine the future: heat was applied to the bone or shell, causing it to crack. The diviner would then interpret the pattern of the cracks to provide answers to the inscribed questions.

Writing on pottery (Ostr. Sup. 236) (1st or 2nd century)Cambridge University Library

Writing on pottery:
An ostrakon is a piece of pottery, usually a fragment of a pot. They were frequently used as a medium for writing. In ancient Athens, they were used for the casting of votes, and decisions to exile or ostracise individuals were made by citizens writing names on ostraka. The fragments of this ostrakon, dating from first or second-century CE Roman Egypt, contain a horoscope.

Palm leaf manuscript (Talapatra) Palm leaf manuscript (Talapatra), close-up showing construction detail (1015 CE, 18th-19th century, 11th century) by Author: Rāhulabhadra, Scribe(s): Sujātabhadra; KaruṇavajraCambridge University Library

New Materials

Palm leaf manuscript (Talapatra) Palm leaf manuscript (Talapatra) (1015 CE, 18th-19th century, 11th century) by Author: Rāhulabhadra, Scribe(s): Sujātabhadra; KaruṇavajraCambridge University Library

New materials: palm leaves

The leaves of the Borassus (Palmyra) palm were used as writing materials across South and Southeast Asia from at least the fifth century CE until the nineteenth century. The leaves are dried and trimmed then threaded onto strings and protected by wooden covers.

A note at the end of this manuscript tells us that it was written on Thursday 31 March 1015 by a scribe named Sujātabhadra in a Nepalese monastery called Hlāṃ. It contains a Buddhist text written in Sanskrit on the Perfection of Wisdom and includes numerous painted miniatures illustrating the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and other divinities.

Papyrus fragment (MS Add.4414) (Late 2nd or early 3rd century CE)Cambridge University Library

New materials: papyrus

Papyrus, a reed-like plant abundant in Egypt and Southern Sudan, was used as a writing material from the fourth millennium BCE until it was superseded by paper in the medieval period. Strips of pith from the plant are laid at right angles and melded together to form sheets which can be joined to produce scrolls.

This fragment of a Greek poem, dating from the late second or early third century CE, is one of thousands of papyri excavated from an ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus in southern Egypt.

Book of Deer (MS Ii.6.32) (850-1000 C.E.)Cambridge University Library

New materials: parchment

Parchment, made principally from the skin of sheep, goats and calves, was used as a medium for writing from prehistoric times and remained dominant across the Christian, Jewish and Islamic worlds throughout the middle ages. This pocket gospel book was written in the first half of the tenth century in Latin. Notes were added in Gaelic or Middle Irish, and it is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland. It is known as the Book of Deer since later notes in it refer to the monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire.

Devīkavaca (MS Add.1578) (Probably 19th century CE)Cambridge University Library

New materials: bark

A hymn in praise of the goddess Durga from Nepal, written on a sheet of birch bark and used as an amulet or charm. This item probably dates from the nineteenth century.

Banknote (MS Parkes 8/1) (1380)Cambridge University Library

New materials: mulberry paper

A Chinese banknote printed in 1380 on paper made from the fibres of the mulberry tree.

Codex with a chemise binding (MS Add.7720)Cambridge University Library

Transporting Texts

Transporting texts: the codex

The standard format for the production of longer texts in the ancient Mediterranean world was rolls or scrolls made from sheets of papyrus or parchment joined together. Shorter documents were often written on wooden tablets, sometimes with waxed-filled compartments. A group of tablets hinged or fixed together was called a ‘codex’. By the third century CE, groups of folded sheets of parchment or papyrus were being referred to by the same term. The codex was durable, portable, easy to use and economic. By the sixth century CE it had become the dominant format. This example is contained within a ‘chemise’ or wrapper, to protect the contents.

Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4) and Wooden pagoda Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4), Wooden pagoda (764-770 (天平宝宇8 – 宝亀1))Cambridge University Library

Transporting texts: the pagoda

Printing technology was first developed in China, but the oldest printed materials that can be securely dated are Japanese Hyakumanto darani, ‘one million pagodas and darani’.

Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4) and Wooden pagoda Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4), Wooden pagoda with lid removed (764-770 (天平宝宇8 – 宝亀1))Cambridge University Library

Transporting texts: the pagoda

As part of the establishment of Buddhism in Japan, between 764 and 770 CE, Empress Shotoku commissioned a large number of invocations (darani) to be printed in Chinese characters on small paper scrolls.

Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4) and Wooden pagoda Hyakumantō darani (FG.870.1-4), Wooden pagoda lid (764-770 (天平宝宇8 – 宝亀1))Cambridge University Library

Transporting texts: the pagoda

Each one was rolled up and stored in a small wooden pagoda and they were distributed around various temples.

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Making type (CUL Historical Printing Collection)Cambridge University Library

The print revolution

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Printing type (CUL Historical Printing Collection) (Late 19th century)Cambridge University Library

Arguably, the invention of moveable type was the most significant innovation of the fifteenth century.

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Making type (CUL Historical Printing Collection)Cambridge University Library

A relief pattern of each letter was cut by a skilled hand on the end of a piece of steel, called a punch. The punch was hammered into a small block of copper called a matrix. In turn the matrix was locked into a mould and a type founder could pour in a liquid alloy of lead, antimony and tin that would solidify to produce a copy of the punch. These are modern examples of a punch, a matrix and a mould, from Cambridge University Library's Historical Printing collection.

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) (ca. 1455)Cambridge University Library

The print revolution: Gutenberg Bible

The first Western European book to be printed using movable type was the Gutenberg Bible. Around 180 copies of this Latin Bible were produced by Johann Gutenberg and Johannes Fust in Mainz in 1454–5. Gutenberg’s technological innovations – the press itself, the metal type and the oil-based ink that adhered to it – revolutionised book production and were rapidly adopted by others across Europe.

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) (ca. 1455)Cambridge University Library

If purchasers wanted to pay extra they could commission illuminated initials and borders to be added to the printed text by hand. This was typically carried out where copies were sold, and not in the Mainz printing shop.

Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761.1-2]) (ca. 1455)Cambridge University Library

The lavish hand rubrication in Cambridge University Library's copy of the Gutenberg Bible still looks fresh and vibrant.

Copperplate printing A copper printing plate (Maps.17.G36) (1798)Cambridge University Library

Printing from plates
The technique of making prints from engraved metal plates developed in Europe not long after the invention of the printing press, and its precision and detail made it extremely popular, notably for mapmaking. Lines were engraved into a copper plate, and the plate was inked. After wiping the surface clean, ink remained in the grooves; this was then transferred to paper by pressing the plate onto it, leaving behind the detailed image. The map of London produced by this printing plate was published in 1789.

Copperplate printing A map printed from a copper plate (Syn.5.79.69(6)) (1798)Cambridge University Library

Printing from plates
Porto-Bello: or a Plan for the Improvement of the Port and City of London (London, 1798), as printed from the copper plate.

Newspapers (1667, 1710, 1733)Cambridge University Library

Reading for all

A Hornbook (SSS.34.33) (18th century)Cambridge University Library

Reading for all: A text to hold

An eighteenth-century hornbook; a printed leaf containing the alphabet and Lord’s Prayer mounted on wood, with a thin covering of translucent horn, used for teaching children.

Newspapers (1667, 1710, 1733)Cambridge University Library

Reading for all: newspapers

Among the numerous printed broadsides, pamphlets, chapbooks and other publications presenting news, rumours and opinions in the seventeenth century, a number of titles were established with regular cycles of publication. The first daily newspaper in London, the Daily Courant, was founded in 1702 and numerous provincial papers were also published at regular intervals. As well as news, both foreign and domestic, and opinion pieces, early newspapers also included advertisements.

Chapbooks (17th - 18th century)Cambridge University Library

Reading for all: cheap literature

Small paper pamphlets like these called chapbooks, containing between 4 and 24 pages, were produced by publishers across the country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and distributed efficiently by a network of chapmen – travelling hawkers and salesmen. For 4d or less, readers who may not have owned any other books could purchase what Samuel Pepys described as ‘penny godlinesses’, sermons and morality tales, ‘penny merriments’, including histories, romances, songbooks and jest books, or gruesome and sensational stories of true crime and punishment.

The book-case of knowledge (1800) by John WallisCambridge University Library

Reading for all: children

Texts have long been produced for the instruction or entertainment of children, but the development of children’s literature as a separate and recognisable publishing activity occurred in the mid-eighteenth century. The book-case of knowledge (London: printed for J. Wallis, 1800) was distinctive in being accompanied by its own custom-made wooden bookcase – a clever marketing ploy to ensure that customers bought the whole set. The ten volumes (this set is missing two), with hand-coloured illustrations, cover various suitable subjects including British heroism, simple arithmetic, and geography and astronomy ‘familiarized for youth of both sexes’.

Paperback fiction (1935)Cambridge University Library

Reading for all: pocket paperbacks

Improvements in the technology of printing and papermaking in the early nineteenth century, including the introduction of steam-powered printing presses, made it commercially possible to mass-produce inexpensive paperback books. The railways provided the means to distribute them and convenient locations to sell them to suburban and provincial readers. In 1935, the publisher Allen Lane spotted a gap in the market for paperback editions of high-quality works of fiction and non-fiction at 6d. for the mass market. Penguin Books, with their straightforward but sophisticated cover designs, were an instant success, selling over one million copies in the first year.

A Telegram for Siegfried Sassoon (12 July 1917)Cambridge University Library

Sending urgent messages

A telegram sent to Siegfried Sassoon from his commanding officer on 12 July 1917, ordering him to report immediately to his regiment. Previously a letter would have taken days to be delivered.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps