John Peter Zenger's Printing Press

The Printing Press and the iPhone

Posted December 11, 2015
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Yesterday, I was down at Federal Hall in Manhattan.

If you have been downtown in Manhattan you have probably passed Federal Hall.  A lot of people mistake it for the NY Stock Exchange.  It's the columned white buiding that looks like the Parthenon. It has a statue of George Washington in front.  That statue commemorates where Washington was inaugurated as the nation's first President.

Standing on the steps and having your picture taken with Washington is a popular tourist passtime. 

Fewer people, however, venture inside, which is too bad.  As the exterior is based on the Parthenon, the interior is based on the Pantheon of Rome.  It has a really impressive interior rotunda. You would not guess it from the exterior.

The place is mostly empty, and a bit dark, but there are a few exhibits, sadly unvisited, at least when I was there.  I was, at least, free to roam at will, and in one of the exhibition rooms, at the back, I found what turned out to be Peter Zenger's original printing press.

I have to admit that the name Peter Zenger, or rather John Peter Zenger rang something of a bell - some long ago memorized bit of American history, I am pretty sure, from my 8th grade history class at Lawrence Jr. High.

Zenger was an early American (or more properly, British colonial newspaper publisher - ca. 1730).  There weren't all that many newspapers in the colonies. In fact, there weren't all that many newspapers in the world.  New York had one of the first.

In 1734, Zenger was arrested for defaming the then British governor of New York, William Cosby. 

The whole concept of newsapers was still pretty new.  No one knew exactly what to make of them or what to do with them - a bit like the Internet.  When newspapers first appeared in 17th Century Europe, their content was carefully controlled by the various govenments.  Writing anything against the government was considered sedtion and was dealt with very seriously - like hanging.

The distance from The Crown, separated by the Atlantic, gave the American colonials a bit of distance from the King's Law as well, but when Zenger published his complaints against the King's Governor (we were still a few years from publishing complaints against the King - that would come in 1776), Zenger was promptly arrested.

The colonies being under English law, Zenger was tried, and remarkably, for the time, found not guilty.  

Many see this as the beginnings of our own First Amendment - the notion of the importance of a Free Press.

Now, what does this have to do with iPhones?

Outside, in Federal Plaza, the iPhones were ubiquitous - mostly takihg 'selfies' of people with either the NY Stock Exchange or Washington in Bronze next to them or behind them.

Interesting, but in a way a tragic underuse of this incredibly powerful tool - the iPhone.

It is almost as if Zenger had bought the printing press (above) and then used it to blacken boots. "Look how nicely it spreads the black ink!"

Well, yes it does, but....

But the printing press could do much more.  As Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and countless others were to discover - right down to Watergate and The Washington Post.

The legacy of the printing press.

Today, who reads newspapers? I mean, who under the age of 30?

But who does not spend their day staring at screens?

I mean under the age of 50.

And what is the iPhone but, both a magical screen where you can see the world brought to you - but more significantly, a kind of digital printing press that allows anyone with an iPhone to be their own John Peter Zenger - that is, to print, and publish whatever they want.

What a remarkable instrument we all carry with us.

A shame we don't put it to its fullest potential



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