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Richard Nordquist

Presidents(') Day Special: The Great Invention of Writing

By February 18, 2011

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To mark Presidents Day (with an apostrophe after s if you adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style; without an apostrophe if, like me, you follow the AP Stylebook), we welcome guest blogger Abraham Lincoln.

In February 1859, when the Illinois congressman was invited to address the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College, Lincoln chose as his topic "Discoveries and Inventions." In the last part of his lecture, he delivered this encomium to "the great invention" of writing.

Writing--the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye--is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it--great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. . . .

When we remember that words are sounds merely, we shall conclude that the idea of representing those sounds by marks, so that whoever should at any time after see the marks, would understand what sounds they meant, was a bold and ingenious conception, not likely to occur to one man of a million, in the run of a thousand years. . . . [The utility of phonetic writing] may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it. . . .

When writing was invented, any important observation likely to lead to a discovery, had at least a chance of being written down, and consequently, a better chance of never being forgotten; and of being seen, and reflected upon, by a much greater number of persons; and thereby the chances of a valuable hint being caught, proportionally augmented. By this means the observation of a single individual might lead to an important invention, years, and even centuries after he was dead. In one word, by means of writing, the seeds of invention were more permanently preserved, and more widely sown. And yet, for the three thousand years during which printing remained undiscovered after writing was in use, it was only a small portion of the people who could write, or read writing; and consequently the field of invention, though much extended, still continued very limited. At length printing came. It gave ten thousand copies of any written matter, quite as cheaply as ten were given before; and consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before. This was a great gain; and history shows a great change corresponding to it, in point of time. I will venture to consider it, the true termination of that period called "the dark ages." Discoveries, inventions, and improvements followed rapidly, and have been increasing their rapidity ever since.
("Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions," read to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College at Jacksonville, Illinois, on February 11, 1859)

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More by and about Abraham Lincoln:

Image: President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)


February 22, 2011 at 8:48 am
(1) Dr.I.S.KALSI says:

Writing really bought a new era to the fore. Before that, man was more like an owl, staring fixedly at others, knowing not what to share with homo sapiens in a big way. It was only the process of writing that opened the flood gates of one’s mind for the benefit of the multitude, thereby, changing the whole attitude of an isolated individual towards others. The sharing of thoughts and instincts brought instant and constant progress. Mankind was a lot better through this act than without it. Hope, all this won’t die down in the age of bone-dry dull e:mails. Salute to the writing-conscious. May their tribe survive even in the Space Age.

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