Gutenberg’s Legacy: Hypotrochoids and Wound Man

Last week I was in Germany for the Altmetrics11 workshop at the ACM Web Science 2011 conference, and had the opportunity to go to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.

If you love the history of technology, typography, the history of printing, or even just seeing lots and lots of old books, this museum will astonish you. From an in-depth discussion of lithography and printing presses from throughout the ages, to clear examples of how even within a few years of Gutenberg’s innovations typography was charting bold new avenues, this Museum is amazing.

Gutenberg, lauded for his creation of the printing press and movable type, did much more than simply modify a wine press. His use of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas is what made his idea so powerful. He used metallurgical developments to create easily regularized metal type, chemical innovations for a better ink, and even used the concept of division of labor to make a large team of workers (many of whom were illiterate) churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. Gutenberg even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly.

And of course, his innovations unleashed changes in nearly every field: science, religion, technology, art, literature, everything. But let’s focus briefly on gears: at the museum, there is a Guilloch√© lathe, which is a massive and intricately geared device that is used to etch the geometric patterns seen on bank notes. These patterns, known as hypotrochoids by mathematicians and Guilloch√© patterns by designers, are exceedingly beautiful. So essentially, part of Gutenberg’s legacy was the Industrial Age Spirograph.

And Gutenberg also affected medicine. The Gutenberg Museum has a book with a copy of Wound Man, which is apparently a medical diagram that teaches anatomy through injury:

And want to see how a book was made in the Nineteen Forties, as companion piece to the museum? Check out this video.