A Seven Minute History Of Digital Publishing

From Gutenberg to Adobe’s invention of the PDF (and beyond)— how the world of publishing went from zero to 1 million-mph…

Henry Tobias Jones
Mar 21 · 8 min read

On 15th June 1993 Adobe Systems’ top-secret project Camelot was completed and released to the world. The product of this task-force’s three-years of work was the rather prosaically named, Portable Document Format — better known today simply as the PDF.

In version 1.0 users could add and edit text, images, hypertext links, and bookmarks. It was a no-frills package, strictly utility.

But by 2007 Adobe supplied its PDF format to the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) — essentially making the PDF the internet’s official document publishing format.

Even back in 2015 an estimated 2.5 trillion PDFs existed on the internet alone. Whether you are distributing a company-wide memo or a glossy New York fashion magazine, the PDF has made publishing open to everyone with a computer. A PDF may not yet carry the cultural cache of a printed magazine, but thanks to the internet, the PDF seems to have out-evolved its neanderthalic print ancestor in the battle for publishing.

Bob Wulff, is Adobe’s Senior Vice President of Cloud Technology but originally joined the company to work on project Camelot. He described the PDF as allowing people “to view a file precisely — down to the pixel, essentially, of what the author had intended.”

While Wulff, a programmer by trade, saw the world in “files”, for the rest of the world the PDF was become restaurant menus, sales brochures, portfolios, self-published novels, and perhaps even a slightly nerdy family’s picture album. It has allowed the rest of the world to make their ideas precisely accessible to the world — “down to the pixel”.

This is, of course, precisely what the 15th century public in Mainz would have said to Johannes Gutenberg when he revealed his invention, the printing press.

Although at the time no one (in Europe at least) had seen a machine which could recreate words on a page at will, the printing press only appeared to turn thoughts into texts. While it undeniably helped to proliferate printed documents, it was really only designed to make a physical copy of an already written document. Today the nearest equivalent is not the computer or even the typewriter but the humble (and increasingly redundant) photocopier.

Nevertheless, the Gutenberg Press and the PDF are inextricably linked. Both are just small parts of the same, much more ambitious project which our species has been experimenting with since the very first days of our existence. That project is best described simply as: invention.

The exchange of information unites all humans, throughout all ages, sexes, and cultures. If you were to drop a paleolithic man in Silicon Valley he would watch his new neighbours and quickly learn that dropping a metal disc into a slot and pressing little marked squares would make a vending machine produce food. And likewise, if you were to return a modern man to one of our prehistoric communities, it wouldn’t take them long to teach our ancestors that purifying water before drinking it would prevent potentially deadly infections.

But this information exchange has a partner: invention. Humans are naturally quick studies. However, our passive ability to learn depends more heavily than we are willing to admit on the ability of some humans to have and make and idea which changes the world around them.

For example, the original European printing presses reproduced texts in Latin, which at the time was the language of enlightened inventors. William Caxton’s subtle alteration to the printing press, converting it in 1473 to print in English, may seem straightforward to a generation who grew up with Google Translate. But Caxton’s reinvention of printing to use a common tongue was not immediately obvious — even to the printing press’s inventor, Gutenberg. Although there is nothing intrinsically special about English, Caxton’s decision helped to make English (itself an invention) the foremost language on planet Earth.

What’s more, publishing in the vernacular has shaped whole swathes of other human inventions as a result. Would coders have ever thought to invent their own programmer’s language? Would phone texting or emojis exist? Would IKEA have ever been able to sell flat pack furniture without instructions? Would the London Tube have a map?

And the printing press and PDFs are purely hardware inventions, information exchange tools used by pilgrims on the road of progress. But what about the more intangible inventions?

The typeface used by the pioneers of print, Gutenberg, and later Caxton, was a blackletter font called Textualis.

It was used for the first and all-time most printed document, the Bible. Handwritten or printed, this was the font of almost all western letters. Until it wasn’t. Blackletter today is rarely used and the best-known examples are the decorative mastheads on newspapers like the Daily Mail or New York Times. It fell out of use spectacularly after the Nazi’s adopted it — most infamously for its SS uniforms and it never recovered.

But is that the only reason? Just like the printed book or magazine versus the PDF, Blackletter was fatally flawed from the very beginning because it simply isn’t very easy to read.

In 1927 the font this sentence is printed in was invented. A typographer called Paul Renner created the aptly named Futura as a font for the future. It more than achieved this feat when it became the first font to leave our solar system in 2007, emblazoned on the Voyager spacecraft’s two golden phonograph discs. It was also the first font to land on the Moon.

It was created as part of a process of refinement that took nearly five centuries and which still continues today.

Douglas Thomas is the author of Never Use Futura, a cultural history of the eponymous font.

As he explains, “Futura was created during an era when typefaces were on the front lines of culture. In 1920s Germany even the alphabet was a matter of national identity and fierce debate. For some traditionalist, the only true German letters were blackletter types like Fraktur — the thick-lined, heavily ligatured types that mimicked medieval scholarly handwriting, in which paper was scarce and words were long.”

For designers, artists, and other thoroughly modernists, desperate to rid themselves of the old world order, a new font offered the chance to build a new world order.

Futura’s journey is reflective of the way inventions like language, printing, and mass publication really took off in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Today, your reading experience has been enhanced by mobile digital screens which never leave ink on your fingers, spell checking software which helps to prevent typos, and a vast internet publishing database that can deliver virtually any book, article or picture you want in the blink of an eye.

And yet, the core invention which led to the first written words and subsequently to sentences rocketing off planet Earth, all stem from our species’ problem-solving tendencies.

PDF’s were invented to make documents easy to read by anyone anywhere. Gutenberg and Caxton had the same idea, but their best solutions couldn’t rely on an internet library which anyone could carry around in their pocket.

And yet, new fronts are threatening to reshape even the most advanced and easiest-to-use versions of Adobe’s ubiquitous PDF. No, I’m not describing the ease-of-use UX of Microsoft Word or Apple’s Keynote — or even Adobe’s InDesign et al. Ultimately, all of those programmes require expertise and a skillset to create a publishable product. This can range from the simple creative questions, like whether or not you have an eye for typography or images, to fiddly technical details like pagination.

Having worked in the United Kingdom as a magazine editor and journalist for over a decade I have seen this process up close. Print was King when I started out. Then, slowly, websites started to pop-up — powered by digital adverts and new (albeit at first clunky) content publishing software. Before long independent magazines all had better websites than the national newspapers — if not the traffic they needed to keep them up and running.

This slow march towards all-digital publishing continued and today the consequences are beginning to become apparent. Even if you can make an all bells-and-whistles publication and distribute it online, you’ll soon realise that there’s a problem: people don’t read any more.

59 percent of all links shared on social networks aren’t even read before they’re shared, which means that most of the articles being passed around social media could actually just be headlines and subheadings with a picture. They aren’t necessarily a reflection of the ideas they include, the time that went into crafting them, or the social impact they might have had if they were only read by 100 super-fans.

This will come as no surprise to any sociologists or anthropologists reading this. Speech has always been the primary method of human communication. By comparison to a conversation, reading and writing are hard work.

The very technology which has taken digital publishing to the extreme ends of what Gutenberg first had in mind has now started to eat its own tail. By making reading everything, all the time, easier the act of publishing anything, anytime, has also gotten easier. And in the pursuit of speed the format has started to shift.

Researchers say that online video will account for 80 percent of all web traffic by 2019, up from 67 percent in 2014. Likewise podcasts have become sensationally popular in the UK and Europe making audio the “next big thing” in content today.

Today both video and podcasting are complex and require skill, time, and equipment. But, don’t forget what happened in 1993 when one company made the printing press, website hosting, and graphic designers a thing of the past. When it comes to publishing nothing is written in stone.

Henry Tobias Jones is a freelance journalist and editor in London, UK. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram here.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +436,678 people.

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Henry Tobias Jones

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Features director of ES Magazine, Evening Standard Founding editor of @dyson on: Follow me @henrytojones

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