Movable type was invented in China (made from clay in c. 1041; made from hardwood in c.1297). But in Europe in the early fourteenth century there were only handwritten books or some short texts, printed by the words having been carved into wooden blocks.

Johannes Gutenberg was a young engraver and gem-cutter when he thought of using movable type to compose whole books. He experimented over several years, borrowing large sums of money to cover costs. He made moulds of letters for casting individual characters in metal. He invented devices for composing the types on a wooden plate and for inking the composition evenly, and finally a hand-printing press for making impressions of the plates on paper.

He tested his press by printing an old German poem over and over. He was now ready for the job he’d been dreaming of for years, printing the whole Bible in Latin. He composed 1,286 pages of 42 lines each, and printed 180 copies. The first book ever printed from movable type was ready in 1455.

We now know that printing’s long history is riddled with typographical mistakes or typos, but the first printed book was miraculously free of any typos. Only 49 copies of the Gutenberg Bible are known to exist today, of which only 21 are complete. Only one of these complete copies has an unusual error: the third and fourth lines of both columns were accidentally transposed by the compositor.

The world’s most famous book typo happened in 1631 when the London printers Robert Barker and Martin Louis were asked to print a new edition of the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611. The compositor left out the word ‘not’ from Number Seven of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14) changing it into ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. The printers were summoned by order of King Charles I to the court and were fined £300 and their printing licence revoked. The most of the 1,000 printed copies were burned but around 10 copies are believed to exist today still. Known as the ‘Wicked Bible’ it has now become a sought-after collector’s item valued as much as US$100,000.

The typo in the ‘Wicked Bible’ was not an exception; mistakes in the earliest days of the book were expected. ‘The history of early printing suggests, very strongly, that authors and printers weren’t pursuing a kind of perfect text,’ says Adam Smyth, professor of English literature and the history of the book at the University of Oxford. ‘Error was inevitable … and what authors and printers argued about was how much error and instability was acceptable for a book to be called a book. It was about tolerating, rather than eliminating, reasonable mistakes.’ The word erratum (from Latin ‘error’, meaning error in printing or writing) also originated in the mid-sixteenth century. In early days of printing, errata (a list of corrected error appended to a book) were markers of well-made books. Smyth calls errata lists ‘one of print’s signature traits.’

Errata lists in some ways can absolve books the sins of typos, but the public signs, notices and billboards littered with typos need grammar geeks like Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson to make them free of errors. In 2008, armed with markers, chalk and correction fluid the duo journeyed across America for nearly three months righting the glaring errors displayed in grocery stores, museums, malls, restaurants, mini-golf courses, beaches and even a national park. They discovered 437 typos and corrected 236 of them. Misused apostrophes were the most common error, they say, occurring ‘like a virus’. Their penchant for punctuation landed them in federal court when they corrected a missing comma and apostrophe on an old sign in Grand Canyon National Park. They were sentenced to a year on probation for vandalising federal property. In The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time (2011), they chronicle their adventures correcting typos, including a typo in the court summons that claimed that they had violated ‘criminal statues’. It should have been ‘statute’ if you are wondering.

© Surendra Verma 2019

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