Information Revolutions in the History of the West
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Information Revolutions in the History of the West

Leonard Dudley

With detailed case studies addressing the sources of innovation in information technology, along with a conceptual framework to explain their effects, this book will be of interest to students and teachers of Western economic and social history, as well as to the general reader with an interest in the social impact of innovation.
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Chapter 5: Printing with Steam

Leonard Dudley


By the beginning of the nineteenth century, thanks to the Bible in English, printed with cheap replicas of Gutenberg’s wood-framed hand press, a majority of Britons could read and write. However, the overall literacy rate had barely budged now for over half a century. With books expensive and newspapers unable to print more than a few thousand copies a day of a given text, the high cost of transmitting information from producers to readers constituted a major bottleneck to the expansion of literacy. A hefty increase in Stamp Duty imposed on newspapers by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to finance his wars with France had certainly not helped British publishers. Indeed, by 1803, The Times of London was on the verge of bankruptcy. Yet the paper’s publisher, John Walter II, thought he saw a way out. One component of the stamp tax was levied on each printed sheet regardless of its size. If a means could be found to increase the size of each page, more advertisements could be crammed on a sheet for the same tax. Since the other component of the duty was based on the number of advertisements per issue rather than on the number of copies sold, there was a second potential way to increase profits. All that was required was to increase the number of copies of the same text printed each day. Surely it was possible to design a faster press! However, The Times with its middle- and upper-class readers was not...

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