By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 21, 2023

Judging from the number of words in our language containing “press” in some form (at least 545), it appears that we’re all, very often, experiencing some form of pressure, from the air pressure in our tires to the blood being pressed through our circulatory systems.

To start at the bottom, there’s “Depression,” which nearly always has an unpleasant connotation, whether you’re talking about a mental, meteorological, or economic condition. Few people ever want to be depressed, even if they’ve been diagnosed as “manic-depressive.”

Depression and anxiety seem to be linked psychologically, as your neighborhood shrink will no doubt confirm. Psychiatry used to be primarily a matter of talking to somebody about your problems. But nowadays, it seems to have transformed itself into a branch of the Pharmaceutical Industry (frequently referred to as “Big Pharma”), and its chief function has become the dispensing of pills. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, if the pills usually work. But a major danger of these medications, as the information literature, which is always provided with them, will invariably tell you in great detail, is to have very much unwanted “side effects.” (For some reason, these unintended effects are almost always bad and not good.)

But what about “The Press” itself? This “expression” has for centuries referred to what we now are more likely to call “The Media,” but it goes back to the Printing Press, which itself goes back to the idea that, if you press something against something else hard enough, it may leave some kind of a mark. This concept apparently first evolved in ancient China into a kind of printing. The three basic elements were: (1) some carved surface, perhaps lettering of some kind; (2) some dark oily substance – what we would now call “ink” – capable of being transferred by pressure from one surface to another; and (3) another surface, plain and as yet unmarked, to receive the “impression.”

This idea took millennia to reach Western Europe, where, about 1440, in the hands of a German mechanical genius named Johannes Gutenberg, it became a hand-operated machine which, by means of a large screw, could press two surfaces neatly together. That was a great invention in itself – but even more “impressive” was Gutenberg’s development of movable type, making it possible for the same little letters and symbols, cast in metal and used on one document, to be taken apart from each other and re-used on another.

It then took only another 500 years for that same basic technology to come into my own hands, when, as a student at Paul Junior High School in Washington, D.C., I was privileged to have one semester of “Print Shop.” In a remarkably well-equipped facility, and with an experienced teacher named Mr. McGee, we learned how to use an adjustable hand-held metal frame, called a “stick,” in which to set up the individual metal pieces of “type,” each representing a letter or character, or sometimes just an empty space. The tricky part of this “typesetting” was that you had to insert all the little pieces, for a particular piece of writing, upside-down, and in reverse order of their position in the text.

(This somehow reminds me of the dancing team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hearing someone praising Fred’s superb technique, somebody else pointed out that Ginger also had to do all the same steps – only backwards, and in high heels!) 

All the different pieces of type came out of a big, sectioned box called a “case,” with the most frequently used letters and characters occupying larger sections. (The largest was for the “e’s”.)

Eventually, the type was securely set in place – and that is where the PRESS came in. In our beginners’ class, as I remember, the press was simply a sort of small but heavy drum with projecting handles, which could be hand-rolled down a special track, putting pressure on the already-inked set-up type placed in its path. And of course, between the type and this roller was placed, as carefully as possible, a clean sheet of paper.

The “case” was nothing like a typewriter keyboard – and anyway, few of us kids knew how to type in those days. Many of us would live to see the whole idea of pressure become digitized, with digital pressure gauges now available for all kinds of purposes. 

So, that is where “Freedom of the Press” and so many of our other exPRESSions come from – including the journalist’s favorite:

“Forgive Us Our Press-Passes.”  


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