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It is the year 1800 technology-level. In this world, no one uses any kind of printing technology (moveable type, typewriters, block printing, lithography, etc). People still write, and need to automate writing.

Printing: The art or process of making copies or superficial transfers by impression.

Writing: The art or process of producing text (or equivalent to text) with the help of a moving instrument capable of creating a smooth, controllable lines.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz's Writing Automaton is an idea, but if that route is to be used, it has to be made considerably more cheap, reliable and versatile. It should be comparable to printing of 19th century in terms of being cheap, reliable and versatile.

  1. The process must look like (some form of) writing.
  2. It should be capable of making vector graphics - complete lines (or equivalent).
  3. It should be programmable via punched cards or specially shaped wheels or something similar. That is, mechanical and easy to make in early 19th century.
  4. It should be cheap enough, so that books can be mass produced.

This world has no printing technology specifically, but has writing technologies (like palm-leaf+nail, clay-tablet+stylus etcetera) in general. Given that no form of printing is used, what alternative technology can replace the printing press?


Edit After seeking and obtaining the advice from senior users like @elemtilas (who kindly answered my meta-question), I am removing the unnecessary back stories which may act as distraction to the core question. With the honest belief that this is the correct course of action, I am editing the question. Further advice/suggestion is welcome.


There are 3 best answers. I think that the best answers are those of (1) Radovan Garabík, since using physical yarn threads as the "lines" of writing, this scheme achieves equivalent of writing (2) UVphoton, since Autopen (or duplicating polygraph) can indeed automate writing (3) quarague, since this is the simplest (though not reader-friendly) technique.

The answer of Radovan Garabík makes me wonder that a Mesoamerican industrialisation would have lead to some form of automated quipu production. I am selecting this as the best answer, because I cannot select multiple answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 20, 2022 at 9:48

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The quipu is a way of storing information in form of knots of strings, as used by pre-conquest Inkas. Although probably not writing, it can be adapted into one - or perhaps reinvented from scratch.

Your entrepreneur devises a clever scheme where individual letters are represented by knots, syllables by "ligature knots", one short string is a word, short strings hanging out of a longer one form a sentence. It is in fact just a simple code of a "normal" orthography, but sufficiently weird to escape the wraith of the "authorities". Quite time consuming to knot manually, but very fast when using a modified Jacquard loom and pre-programmed punched cards. The timing is about right. And for some reason it tooks off like crazy, filling the natural gap left by the absence of printed material.

(it does quite produce the "vector graphics", but hey, it does encode the information...)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. This is highly interesting. Are you aware of any attempts to automate information encoding quipu style? That would be a very good idea. I shall select a correct answer after waiting for more answers, but yours is certainly good. Upvoted. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2022 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan Simple" is relative... they still require somewhat precision mechanics. Anyway, the stocking frame was invented in late 16th century - for knitting, obviously not quipe, but the principle is there, and it continued evolving. Perhaps the best quipe-lookalike example is the Nottingham lace curtain machine of middle 19th century that was already fully mechanized and programmable with Jacquard punch cards. (1/2) $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2022 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ No reason not to have such a machine earlier, it would be just quite expensive to produce to the required precision and reliability (and there was just not that much demand for the lace). Machine embroidery comes from about the same era, but it is a sidestep and looks too much like printing... (2/2). $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2022 at 12:11
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If cost is a major concern, I would suggest to adapt the writing. Building a machine like described in Matthias answer that writes Latin alphabet characters is possible but very hard and expensive with 1800 technology. Making one for Chinese characters is even harder, mostly because there are so many more different characters.

But going in the opposite direction and building such a machine that writes Morse code is much cheaper and simpler as it only needs to write a short and a long straight line. This does require more effort for the human beings that want to read things written by this machine but humans can learn.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I never thought about this. I wonder why such automata did not exist in OTL, since these would have been simple. I shall select a correct answer after waiting for more answers, but yours is certainly good. Upvoted. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2022 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Even in the real world, prior to any mechanized writing or printing, scripts were adapted for different production processes. Even hieroglyphics were adapted into different forms for handwriting and decoration of things like monuments: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratic $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 18:27
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Are you looking for something like this?

enter image description here

Video-Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8YVlR_1hlo

This is pretty straightforward with electricity and digital data storage, it is a bit harder with 18/19th century technology.

Energy shouldn't be too hard. Electricity isn't an option, but even at this time, there were some very sophisticated methods too handle mechanical power precisely. If the 18/19 century engineers were able to build clocks, it does seem plausible to power this device as well. It needs low but precise amounts of energy, just like a clock. Precision of the machine itself doesn't seem to be a problem, again, they were also building clocks.

Data storage is a bit harder. It needs a lot of very specific commands to create smooth "handwritten" letters. So a lot of commands need to be hardcoded into the machine. This kind of storage and the processing would be much bigger than the whole machine, but I guess not impossible. After all, the letters don't need to look very smooth. The punched cards that would be fed into the machine don't need to carry that much information. It is sufficient when the input card tells the machine "write a capital A" and the machine accesses its internal data storage for all the specific commands that are required to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. Upvoted. Such machines existed 250 years ago (youtube.com/watch?v=OehTO9l1Hp8). The question is how to cheaply mass produce such machines with the year 1800 technology level. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2022 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan It would be a bit cheaper, since it does not need to look like a human/doll and crucial parts can be closer to the paper. In addition, making the letters as simple as possible (while maintaining readability) would increase speed and therefore cost-efficiency. Adding a "conveyor belt" for the paper would reduce the necessity of human intervention. None of these points is a real gamechanger. I don't see a possbility making it as cheap as a printing press. I guess it could be cheaper than a literate human, since it can work 24/7 and barely makes mistakes. $\endgroup$
    – Matthias
    Dec 18, 2022 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ Any such historical attempts or studies which indicate that such machines could be cheaper than a human, is what I am looking for. Since this is not a "Hard Science" Question, I am not asking for exact facts and figures of how this can be done, but rather about any such other techniques of the day which could plausibly have led to such a device. I shall wait for other answers too, before selecting the correct answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2022 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Expanding on the data storage / programming, you could use cams like the automaton, but have one cam for each letter, and stack them together to make a cylinder for a row of text (the "cam follower" would slide over each cam in turn to produce the row of text). The cams could be punch-pressed (invented 1795) out of leather or thin wood, or could be cut on something like a Blanchard Lathe (invented 1822). This gets you roughly to the printing press in terms of workflow, although the cams will be bigger than type. $\endgroup$
    – IronEagle
    Dec 19, 2022 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ Given how traditional writing involves a lot of curves, I wonder if it's reasonable to have the pen attached to a wheel instead of a second linear axis. That way, something like a lowercase cursive L can be encoded as "spin wheel while moving horizontally at X speed" instead of "continuously adjust both positions according to Y function" Maybe even have two wheels, one for half-size text (most lowercase letters) and one for full-size text (uppercase, t, l) $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2022 at 14:46
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The Autopen is still used today... it is the evolution of a pantograph. Pantograph machines are still used today for engraving or CNC machining, but can also be used for writing and have the advantage that the scale of the output can be adjusted. It is just a series of mechanical linkages.

I would propose that you model your writing factory somewhat after a textile mill in the 1800 time frame. The Jacquard loom was invented then and used punch cards to program the patterns in fabrics. (Sometime around then the Luddites were also smashing textile looms.)

But perhaps a simpler approach is to scale up the pantograph and and have it writing multiple documents at once, with multiple pens all mechanically linked. There is the issue of friction and precision, but perhaps the scribe writing has really big forearms... Or a counter balance system using big weights, or a water wheel and providing mechanical assistance.

If you scaled it up, there would probably be issues of having a massive polished granite floor to spread out the paper, and a lot of manual labor in keeping the pens filled and sharp etc. You would need to worry about foot prints etc.

All of this is completely impractical, an engineering nightmare, and would be supplanted by a printing press when the revolution comes....

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I read about the technologies mentioned in your answer, and found out about duplicating polygraph. I shall select a correct answer after waiting for more answers, but yours is certainly good. Upvoted. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2022 at 9:28
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Metal stencils

metal stencils

source

Depicted: metal stencils for fancy printed letters. For this scheme the metal stencils would have cursive writing. The original is handwritten in flowy letters on metal foil or thin plate. Copper could work. Lead would work well. The letters are then cut through the metal. You could do this with a sharp tool (on lead or thin copper) or etch with acid. I like the idea of the copiers in your world writing cursive directly on the lead sheets using sharp knives which they periodically whet on a stone.

Now you have metal stencils. You can arrange them in a frame and place them over paper then apply ink or spray from above. Alternatively you could use no ink and produce the letters on the paper with heat, toasting the paper through the holes in the metal. You might pretreat the paper with something that toasts fast - this is the principle behind secret writing with lemon juice.

Your cursive metal stencils can be used to produce many paper copies. When the need for those words is done they can be rolled back into foil and reused for the next day's newspaper.


Ok. I deduce that "writing" must be produced by a human type writing instrument drawn across the paper. You system will still use metal stencils. The instrument will follow the cut channel in the stencil. It will be similar to this groove calligraphy set except there will be entire cursive words and the groove is a channel through the metal. The writing tool extends through the channel and writes on the paper beneath.

enter image description here

https://groovecalligraphy.com/products/reusable-copybooks-1

The problem with cursive is that sometimes the writing instrument goes backwards. A 4 dimensional vector force (up, down, right, left) is applied to the writing instrument and a turning clock gear determines what force is to be applied at a given time after start. The force applied governs the general direction and the channel in the stencil provides the fine tuning.

All letters are connected. Words are connected via a characteristic horizontal line. The writing instrument is not lifted from the page. A line is written left to right and then the instrument drops to the next line which is written right to left. Horizontal lines of text are connected by characteristic vertical lines. There are no accents, no dots and no crosses on letters.

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    $\begingroup$ That is printing $\endgroup$
    – Joe W
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your insightful answer. But is it writing? I searched for what you said, and found this: britannica.com/art/printmaking/Lithography#ref397227 . $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2022 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeW Maybe I should have included back reading. /A printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring the ink./ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing_press $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 18, 2022 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan - my proposal is essentially a lithograph. It can be automated and meets your 4 criteria as regards the end product. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 18, 2022 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think you're on to it with the second part. Similar to a printing press, you would be laying a track of letters to tell the mechanical pen how to move. There may be several different "a" letters, depending on what came before it and what comes after, to keep the track smoothly connected. You could still do dots and spaces, I think, by having areas of the track that lift the pen from the paper while still guiding it on its journey. It would be painstaking to lay but once laid, it can print (write!) as many times as you want copies of the page. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 19, 2022 at 21:24

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