The 19th century moral panic over… Paper technology

In the history of information technologies, Gutenberg and his printing press are (understandably) treated with the kind of reverence even the most celebrated of modern tech tycoons could only imagine. So perhaps it will come as a surprise that Europe’s literacy rates remained fairly stagnant for centuries after printing presses, originally invented in about 1440, started popping up in major cities across the continent. Progress was inconsistent and unreliable, with literacy rates booming through the 16th century and then stagnating, even declining, across most of Western Europe. Great Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy all produced more printed books per capita in 1651–1700 than in 1701–1750.

Then came the early 19th century, which saw enormous changes in the manufacture of paper and improvements on the printing press. These changes both contributed to and resulted from major societal changes, such as the worldwide growth increase in formal education. There were more books than ever and more people who could read them. For some, this looked less like progress and more like a dangerous and destabilizing trend that could threaten not just literature, but the solvency of civilization itself.

There’s obviously a comparison to be made here to television, videogames, the internet, and smartphones – all new inventions that took the world by storm that many consider to be a threat to society. It’s always interesting to look at similar stories and fears from centuries ago.


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