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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

William Caxton


Question: Where does innovation usually happen?
Answer: On the fringes of the established order.

Think Xerox PARC, 3000 miles from Xerox corporate headquarters and well out of site of the pressures of the short term P&L. But this is not new. Innovation always seems to grow in out-of-the-way places... places where you would least expect it.

Take the case of William Caxton. Caxton was the first person to bring printing to England. His story is remarkable on a number of accounts. Born in England in 1416, he spent most of his life as a wealthy merchant in Bruges (Belgium). He collected rare manuscripts and in 1469 even served the court of the Duchess of Burgundy after her marriage to Charles the Bold. Caxton had translated a three-volume history of Troy from Latin. It proved to be very popular in the Duchesses' court and she kept asking for more copies. Each one, of course, had to be hand copied. Apparently, Caxton got tired of producing the copies and decided to learn printing. This was barely 15 years after the printing of the Gutenberg Bible! He studied in Cologne in 1471 and 1472 and subsequently moved back to England in 1476 to set up a printing business in Westminster Abbey.

As someone rapidly approaching later life, I take some heart from the fact that Caxton reinvented himself as a printer at the age of 60! He brought English texts to the people including The Cantebury Tales and almost a hundred other popular titles. The English could now read for themselves. Caxton died some fifteen years later in 1491.

I read about William Caxton in a recent book by John H. Lienhard entitled, How Invention Begins. Lienhard makes the following point about Caxton's innovations.
Europe regarded England as a relative cultural backwater in the late fifteenth century. The fact that Caxton was operating outside of European high culture served him well. From his outside-the-box vantage point, he did far more than just take up printing. He brought populist literature to the people. Without Caxton there could not have been a Shakespeare. (p. 168)

An entry in Wikipedia adds a little more light on Caxton's work:

Caxton was not without his detractors. There was widespread unease amongst the Merchant Class of the time, who felt that if the printed page were to become widely available to the population, then it might filter through to the poor. The poor, it was believed, might then "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" and, ultimately, dissatisfied and aggrieved. This, it was felt, might lead to unrest and civil disturbance.

In challenging the wisdom of his critics, Caxton announced: "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong".


Caxton is a great example of "innovation at the fringe". His work changed the course of English literature, and subsequently our own. I 'm feeling like my own "reinvention" is needed about now. William would certainly understand. After all, he wrote the book.

(Image of Caxton's Printers Device (mark) from Wikipedia)

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