A new film looking at the key objects which have revolutionised communication over thousands of years of human thought is launched today as part of Cambridge University Library's 600th anniversary celebrations.

The Gutenberg Bible in the exhibition was printed in 1454. By 1500 printing had spread to 250 cities across Europe.

Suzanne Paul

From 3000-year-old Chinese oracle bones to Penguin paperbacks of the 20th century, the collections at Cambridge University Library chart the technological revolutions that have changed the world around us.

The objects in the film all feature in the Library's spectacular new exhibition Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World, which opened free to the public last week in Cambridge and online.

Technology has always driven and mediated human communication and all its forms can be found within the Library. The earliest written texts survive on bone and pottery. Early technological advances exploited other local materials – papyrus in Egypt, palm leaves in South-East Asia and parchment from the skins of sheep, calves and goats across the world.

The development of the ‘codex’, a book made up of folded sheets, made it possible to transport and easily consult texts, whilst the invention of printing made mass production possible. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type transformed the scale and variety of the written word. With the advent of mass communication and mass literacy ideas and opinions, as well as controversy and propaganda, spread rapidly and widely.

Today, technology is developing at an ever more rapid rate. The internet, self-publication, e-books, e-mail, social media, tweets and memes are challenging the long-established monopolies of the codex and the printing press. The library of the future will be as much virtual as physical. 

Dr Suzanne Paul, who curated the Communications line of the exhibition, said: “The oracle bones are some of the oldest written objects we have in the Library. They’re one of the earliest examples of writing in the Chinese language and they show how writing was being used, not just for communicating with other people, but the divine and the natural world, using written questions to foretell the future.

“We move on from objects written on stone and bone and clay to books like the Book of Deer and then the Gutenberg bible and the invention of printing. Gutenberg’s greatest innovation was the invention of moveable type; letters than can be taken apart and put together to make new words. The revolution spread very rapidly. The Gutenberg Bible in the exhibition was printed in 1454. By 1500, printing had spread to 250 cities across Europe.

“Beginning with oracle bones, we travel over 3,000 years to the 20th century and the Penguin paperbacks that are familiar to readers all over the world. They demonstrate the development of mass market fiction and are really the iconic example of this. Many of the early Penguin titles were crime fiction by writers like Agatha Christie, which were very popular with readers. The books were also very innovative in terms of simple, clean design, with different colours representing different series. Penguin books sold over a million copies in their first year of publication.”


We would like to capture your thoughts on the future of communication in the digital age: Where does this line of thought take you? Tweet #ulLinesofThought and make your message part of the exhibition.


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