Last time, we focused on methods and media of writing and discussed how easily early works like scrolls and books could be destroyed given that usually only one copy existed.
Backups are essentially copies—mirror images of the original kept out of harm’s way in case the primary is lost or destroyed. But copies aren’t only useful as backups, they also allow information to be spread and shared across the world. For ideas to take root, they’ve got to be shared with as many people as possible. Because of the difficultly of handwriting and copying entire bodies of work, many ideas were kept in fewer hands, many of which were the aristocratic elite. They had access to books, and the ability to read—something the common person didn’t have in the early days of literature. Luckily, as technology matured so did the thirst for knowledge and the ability to share and store data in new ways.
Early scribes needed to the share ideas in books, and they knew the risks they faced by having only one copy of a written work. Scribes, especially those transcribing religious texts, needed many copies in order to share them, and in order to keep content from being destroyed and lost.
With that in mind, they soon they first started copying texts by hand. Greek and Latin manuscripts were typically copied by many scribes in a scriptorium, which was a place in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes.
But, as you might guess, hand-copying hundreds of pages of text wasn’t the most efficient way to create copies, so people would eventually develop technology to make life easier and to improve the world’s intelligence and literacy rates.
One invention in particular enabled people to copy documents and books on a much larger scale, much more quickly. But, as we’ve discussed, many different technologies are often combined to create new technologies. You can’t build a new building without a firm base, so before we get to one of the most important inventions in history, let’s look at the basic concept of printing and examine the foundations of that technology.
The first use of printing was a method of stamping in which a person would engrave characters or images into a stone cylinder called a cylinder seal. The image on the cylinder was then pressed into wet clay to transfer the information. Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BCE in the Near East and southern Mesopotamia and are linked to the invention of cuneiform writing, which would be found on clay cylinders later. Some cylinder seal impressions were even found on things like the early clay tablets I mentioned in the last section.
Eventually cylinder printing gave way to woodblock printing in which a similar concept is at play, but with a wooden block instead of a clay cylinder. The wooden block was carved and ink was placed across the parts of the wood that remained. The information carved into the wood appeared in relief when pressed to fabric, paper, or other media— an instant data transfer.
These methods allowed for many copies to be created easily, but printers (back then it was a person, not a machine) only had one opportunity to carve images and if they made a large mistake, they’d need to start over. Interestingly enough, if there was a mistake, a printer likely either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Word spellings weren’t standardized until the printing press began to flourish, so misprints and misspellings were common in all of the early printing methods.
Luckily, as the demand for information continued to grow, these early printing techniques gave way to moveable type, which first appeared in China in 1040 AD. Moveable type is composed of small raised characters on wood, ceramic, or other material that can be moved around to form one full page of a document. A printer would put ink on the raised parts and carefully transfer it to paper leaving only the character shape in ink.
Moveable type continued to develop in different parts of the world and was eventually integrated—along with technology taken from wine presses—into Gutenberg’s printing press, which was the first moveable type printing press system. It allowed printers to quickly produce cheap copies and made printing a lucrative business for the first time in history.
Like its modern brother the computer, the printing press was a revolutionary invention that changed the way information was recorded, stored, transmitted, and recovered forever. It allowed literature to spread across the world and helped literacy rates rise from 30 percent in the 15th century all the way to 83.7 percent as of 2008. The growth of literature also brought the spread of Christianity since the most widely printed book, then and now, was the Christian Bible (2.5 billion copies of the Bible have been printed. The second most printed is the Quotations of Chairman Mao with 800 million copies and third is The Quran with 450 million). The printing press (along with language itself) is arguably one of the most important inventions in human history.
With moveable type, the risk of losing written information was greatly reduced, if not eliminated, and redundant backup became a practical, if not essential, concept for not only retaining simple tallies and measurements, but in promoting and retaining ideas and in-depth concepts to be passed on. In fact, the first major book printed using the printing press was the Gutenberg Bible. Forty-eight of the 300 originally printed copies of this book still exist today. The Gutenberg Bible stands as a testament (pun intended) to how effective data storage can actually be.
Following the invention of the printing press, books became more common. Information began to spread on a larger scale and was more widely available to the popular masses, which reignited the need for new ways to store information on a large scale (remember how libraries kept burning down?).
But books were just one side of the backup and data storage story. Big Data isn’t a new concept. It’s always been around. Populations have always increased over time, which meant that keeping track of large scale information was quite difficult. Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention and where there is a need, someone often finds a solution. It wasn’t long before another data recording and storage method came along.
We continue our look at the history of data storage and backup in part four: punched cards.