The development of letters and books - 

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The development of letters and books

  Note: 2   Klasse: 11

Arbeit: Introduction:

In this speech the two main topics I am going to deal with are letters and books. I want to give a brief survey of the history of development. First of all, I will explain the status that letters and books have achieved over time.

Today letters and books are a matter of course. Nearly everyone in the industrial countries is able to read and write. Even children at the age of six years are learning how to read and write letters. It is one of the most important skills in their lives that they are learning in the first year of their school education. If you were not able to write or read, you would certainly not survive in today´s world.

The development of books marks a milestone in our evolution. Before that, you had to believe what the oldest people told you about the time before. So you could only learn as much as they were able to remember about the past. The development of the books enabled new possibilities. In books you could restore knowledge for yourself and succeeding generations. So further inventions could be made because scientists could continue the work of someone else without knowing him. Another advantage was that knowledge was available to all people who were interested in it. Through books, information could be spread to a wider audience. Today you are able to find books about almost every subject. Because of these and a lot of other facts, we could not imagine a world nowadays without letters and books.

I hope I have given you an impression of how important the invention of letters and books was and which effects they had on our evolution. On the following pages I want to show you how letters developed during the time from the first ones to those that we are using every day. Afterwards I am explaining how books were written in ancient times and what effect the printing machine from Gutenberg had.

Why was a writing system introduced?

The primary cause for inventing writing was to record official matters such as taxes, payments for trading goods or details of ownerships. It took nearly three thousand years after the invention until people began to use writing in more imaginative ways such as for poetry or literary works.

First beginnings ...
In Mesopotamia:

About 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia were the first who invented writing. In the beginning, they scratched marks on limestone tablets but later they began to use soft clay tablets as their main writing material.

At first the writing system looked like pictures where each picture represented an object. The scribes had to know more than 2,000 symbols to write. This way of writing was very difficult because you had to know so many symbols and their meanings and it was not possible to add any descriptive information. Because of these facts, less rigid symbols were introduced - this meant that a single symbol represented the object and ideas that could be connected with it (for example: a circle could stand for the sun, but also for light, warmth or daylight)

Later the Mesopotamians began to develop a more abstract system of wedge-shaped symbols - known as “Cuneiform“ writing. The Cuneiform was invented because scribes started to write with a stylus and you were not able to make recognizable drawings with it. The stylus was made of reed or wood and had a wedge-shaped tip. Another advantage was that you were able to connect sounds together to make a new word, even though these words have nothing to do with the word they were spelling (for example: to write the word belief in the Cuneiform you combinated the symbol for “bee“ and the symbol for “leaf“). But the main advantage was that scribes now had to learn “only“ 600 symbols.

In Egypt:

At the same time that the Mesopotamians created the Cuneiform, the Egyptains developed their own writing system - called “hieroglyphic“ script. This system was mainly used for inscriptions on buildings and tombs. The Hieroglyphs contained about 700 symbols where each picture represented not only the object shown but also words that sounded similar.

The big breakthrough:

These early forms of writing could only be read or written by very few people because it was difficult for people to master so many symbols. The big breakthrough in the history of writing came when people realized that all the syllables were made of only a few sounds. Each sound could be represented by a symbol (= letter). This discovery took place in 1600 BC and this was the beginning of the alphabet. Through this simplification, writing was from this time within the grasp of everyone.

The alphabet:

The Greeks were the first that introduced vowels and consonants in their script and so the alphabet contained 26 letters. They began to write in horizontal lines from left to right. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The alphabet evolved as time went by and so you will be able to see many similarites between the Greek alphabet and the one we use today. The reason for some changes was that the letters of the alphabet were suited to the material they used to write on. If letters were carved in stone, it was easier to use straight. For writing on papyrus or parchment however, a more rounded style flowed better.

The exception of today´s writing systems:

One script has developed in a way separate from the rest - the Chinese script. It doesn´t have an alphabet - it only consists of thousands of symbols, like the ancient form of writing. Over the years the script has become more complicated. At the beginning it contained 2,500 symbols. Today there are about 50,000 different symbols. This form of writing using pictures is difficult to learn for writing, but it has an advantage when you read it. In our scripts you have to know the language to understand the words. But the Chinese writing represents a word with a symbol instead of spelling it out, so that people do not have to speak the same language to understand it, and that is the reason why it has spread over the Far East. In 1979, the Chinese introduced an alphabet of fifty-eight letters for writing proper names and places´ names (it is called “Pinyin“).

The Book:

The development of the book was closely related to the development of the letters. In the beginning, about 2,000 BC, people used clay tablets as writing material. The first books were made of these clay tablets but this was not a very practical material for producing books. It was not easy to read them and another problem was the storage. Even so, only a few clay tablets have been found by archaeologists.


People began to search for better writing materials with a more useful surface to write on. About 3,500 BC, the ancient Egyptians discovered that the papyrus reed which grew by the River Nile could be made into a form of paper. The papyrus reed grows up to three metres and has a thick stem filled with a white spongy pith. First, the skin was removed and the pith was cut into strips. Then the strips were laid side by side, dampened and pressed under a heavy weight. Under the pressure, the fibres dried and knitted together into the form of a thin sheet of writing material. This writing material was named after the reed and gave us the English word “paper“. For writing, scribes used a reed pen that was dipped into ink. This ancient ink was made from water mixed with vegetable gum and soot or vegetable dye.

Papyrus became quickly known as a new writing material and was exported all over the world. It became the most important writing material and was used for thousands of years. But papyrus had a big disadvantage: The papyrus reed grew only wild in Egypt and because of this fact, all other countries had to import the reed from Egypt. So they were dependent on the supply of the Egyptians. If Egypt stopped supplying papyrus, then scribes in the rest of the world would not have something to write on.


A legend claims that this happened to the King of Pergamun about 160 BC because the Pharaoh of Egypt was jealous of the library at Pergamun. This library was known as the largest and the Pharaoh wanted to stop new books being added to it. So the King of Pergamun ordered his people to find a new writing material for his scribes.

The result was that they used the skin of sheeps, goats or calves to make a type of paper called parchment. To make parchment, you had to soak the animal skins in lime and scrape them clean. Then the skin was rubbed with a pumice stone until the surface was perfectly smooth. The scribes used a quill pen, which was made from a goose feather, to write. The sheets of parchment were sewn together into a book, protected by a cover made of wood or leather. And so, the book as we know began to appear.


The next important invention was from the Chinese. The Chinese were responsible for one of the most important developments in the history of the book: the invention of the paper as we know it today.

The first paper was made in China about 50 AC. Old fishing nets, hemp and rags were beaten in water until they were a pulp of fibres. This pulp was spread on to a bamboo screen. The water drained through the screen and left a mat of fibres. Under high pressure, the rest of the water was pressed out of the fibres and then the paper dried in the sun. It happened some hundreds of years before the secret of paper-making reached the West and even then, it was by lucky chance. During the Siege of Samarkand in 768 AC, Arabs conquered the city and captured many Chinese prisoners. Among these prisoners there were some paper-makers who passed on the secret of paper-making. Up to the twelfth century, there were paper-making factories all over the world.

Copying books:

Through this development, the demand for books increased and the first copy-workshops came into existence, where scribes copied books for sale. In Europe monks were copying by hand for centuries.

By wooden blocks:

Later text and pictures were carved on wooden blocks which were coated with ink. Then they were pressed on to a paper to print the page. This method was satisfactory for printing short works, but it was not suited to copying books because you had to make a separate wood block for each page. A lot of time was wasted in carving the blocks. Sometimes the wood warped, so you had to make a new block.

By moveable letters:

In the middle of the fifteenth century, many people tried to develop a way to fasten copying books. One of these people was Johannes Gutenberg, a skilled goldsmith, who was born in the German town of Mainz. He was fascinated by books and often watched the monks copying the books by hand. The slow process of copying made him think. In 1428, he had the idea that each letter of the alphabet could be made on a separate block of metal, called “moveable type“. To write a word, you had to order the moveable blocks. This was the hour of birth of the printing press.

He set up his business with Johann Fust because he didn´t have enough money. In 1456, they produced the first book printed with moveable letters, the famous Gutenberg Bible. When Fust saw how successful this invention was, he demanded his money back from Gutenberg. But Gutenberg was not able to give the money back and was thrown out of the business he had invented.

Gutenberg had printed his books in Gothic type, but soon upright letters were introduced because they were far easier to read. Gutenberg´s printing machine pressed the paper on the letters from above. Everything was set and operated by hand. In the nineteenth century, printing became faster when power-driven presses were introduced. The next improvement was a press which was made of two cylinders. The paper was rolled over on one of these cylinders and on the other one the types were positioned.

Effects of the books:

Through books, it was suddenly possible to spread information to a wider audience. People began to use writing in more imaginative ways such as for poetry or literary works.

But people also became hungry for more knowledge and began to question the ideas of the past. For example, they began to question the behaviour of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Influential thinkers published pamphlets attacking the Church for taking too much money from followers into its own pockets. These pamphlets helped to wake up the people and brought the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.


You see - people have been constantly trying over thousands of years to develop a way of writing so that everybody could read and write. To reach this target they had to invent a system where you don´t have to know so many symbols. It began with 2,000 symbols and today we use 26 letters for writing.

Over the years, printing has achieved a highly sophisticated level, but the invention of the paper and of the moveable letters were the most important inventions in the history of printing books because they opened the world of books to everyone.


... hab ich leider vergessen zu kopieren!


TOPIC: The development of letters and books

Reporter: Christian Hohenegger (1996/97)



- Why was a writing system introduced?

- First beginnings ...

· In Mesopotamia:

limestone tablets - 2000 symbols - Cuneiform - 600 symbols

· In Egypt:

700 symbols - used for inscriptions

- The big breakthrough:

syllables made of few sounds - so it was within the graps of everyone

- The alphabet:

evolved over time - was suited to the writing material

- The exception of today´s writing systems:

Chinese-script - it´s a picture script - today 50,000 symbols - advantage when you read it

The Book:

- Materials:

· Papyrus:

Egypt - reed that only grows by the Rive Nile - pith could be made into a form of paper - other states were dependent

· Parchment:

made of the skin of sheeps, goats or calves

· Paper:

invented by the Chinese - made of hemp, rags or old fishing nets - took hundreds of years until it came to Europe

- Copying books:

· By hand:


· By wooden blocks:

pictures and texts were carved on wood blocks - coated with ink - for short works

· By moveable letters:

Johannes Gutenberg - each letter of the alphabet could be made on a separate block - 1456: famous Gutenberg Bible

- Effects of the books:

information spread to a wider audience - people question ideas of the past


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