We live on a planet ringed by communications satellites. But how did we get to this point? How did we get from stone tools to Ipods?
The child who opens a comic book for the first time discovers a world rooted in our cave-dwelling ancestors’ fires. Sure, it’s only Spiderman or some anime hero; but the drawings, the words and even the story lines have deep roots that go back to cave paintings and especially to a time 5,000 years ago when the civilizations of Egypt, the Middle East and China developed the first writing systems—some of which, such as Chinese ideograms, have remained true to the original conception. Egyptian hieroglyphs eventually disappeared after thousands of years of steady evolution, while the Hebrew and Phoenician alphabets spread to give us most modern Western writing systems. Writing proved to be an extension of the human mind—the first concrete database to which humanity could refer for both a reliable record and a few fanciful lies.
Of course, this powerful intellectual tool required some useful technologies in order to work. If the alphabet was the software, then pencil and paper were the hardware; but they would not exist for centuries. In the meantime, everything from clay to animal hides were put to use until a Chinese court official invented paper approximately 2,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter the Chinese began making rubbings from stone inscriptions that in turn led to the invention of woodblock printing.
Meanwhile in Europe the challenge was simply to stay alive. Still, the so-called Dark Ages had their moments of light. This thousand-year period witnessed improvements on the Roman alphabet and in punctuation as well as the invention of minuscule (future lower case letters). Paper reached Spain and Sicily in the 1200s and for the first time the Europeans had an incentive to develop a means by which to mechanically duplicate the written word. Unfortunately, the Western alphabet was not well suited to woodblocks, but it was perfect for something the Chinese found cumbersome—moveable type. In 1455 Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, published his famous 42-line Bible using moveable type and a printing press. Within 50 years printing was firmly established throughout Europe, and the modern communications revolution was well on its way.
Woodcuts, etchings and engravings were combined with text to communicate powerful and at times inflammatory messages; and like today’s Internet, printing did not discriminate between legitimate facts and nonsense. Things began to move even faster in the early 1800s with the introduction of the first papermaking machines and power presses. By the 1850s lithography, photography and telegraphy were well established making for faster and more accurate communications; and by the 1890s photoengraving, telephones, audio recording, and motion pictures were reaching ever-wider audiences clamoring for information.
As industrialization advanced, a new field called advertising began to define the look of the modern world. From newspaper and magazine ads to posters and eventually radio and television, advertising became a major force in the development of design and illustration. The 20th century also saw the spread of an American art form called comics that would influence generations of illustrators and painters with its combination of text and images. By the 1950s color photography and four-color process printing were changing the look of American publishing. Magazines proliferated while magnetic tape and stereophonic recordings replaced the old lacquer 78s. Soon the transistor radio would transform broadcasting into an industry catering to an increasingly affluent youth market.
After World War II artistic dominance shifted from Europe to the United States. The absorption of European influences allowed Americans to develop a native style suited to the emerging postwar consumer culture. As Jazz gave way to Rock & Roll and television began to define popular culture, new technologies emerged to once again revolutionize communications. Satellites and space exploration linked all parts of the globe in a complex communications web tailor–made for the computer age. The spread of PCs and Macs in the 1980s as well as the Internet in the 1990s combined with cable television, compact discs and DVDs to once again change the way we communicate. In spite of these amazing developments paper, printings and the handmade image have yet to disappear. If anything, they are proliferating as never before thanks in large measure to the new technologies. Where it will all lead is anyone’s guess. Yet one thing is certain, the image making impulse is as strong as ever and likely to remain that way for as long as humans have hands and eyes.
- Jorge Benitez, Assistant Professor