Night Writer

By | November 27, 2015

One of my favorite stories from printing history—and a great example of historical irony, as well as how we are sometimes forced to adapt to new technology—concerns Johannes Trithemius, a German monk who had been born about a decade after the invention of the printing press. As we all know, the printing press was a disruptive technology that displaced the older “technology” by which books and other documents were reproduced: monks hand-copying manuscripts. For a monk at the time, it was about more than just document reproduction; it was part of his covenant with God. After all, the process of hand-copying offers ample time for prayer, especially when writer’s cramp sets in. This became one of Trithemius’ obsessions. “[T]he meditation of Scripture burns in the heart and produces the ardor of mind that becomes the most devout prayer,” he wrote. As a result, Trithemius was not a big fan of the printing press. “He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures,” he also wrote (Brann, 1981). Them’s fightin’ words ’round these parts.

In 1492, Trithemius wrote a treatise called In Praise of Scribes (De Laude Scriptorum manualium), in which he exhorted monks not to abandon the art of manuscript copying. He also had all sorts of bad things to say about the quality of printing paper compared to scribes’ parchment, that printed books weren’t permanent, and other complaints that remind me of the arguments we always hear about new printing technologies, or even the Internet. But, he had a problem. He had to get copies of the treatise produced quickly.

So, yes, Trithemius had a treatise called In Praise of Scribes printed on a printing press. The crow, it is eaten.

He was a bit of a colorful figure. Trithemius (1462–1516) was born Johannes Heidenberg (he took his monkular name from his hometown of Trittenheim) and like many folks of his time was a polymath, dabbling in all sorts of things like lexicography, cryptography, and even occultism. He had a thirst for learning at an early age, but his stepfather—for whatever reason—was adamantly opposed to education, and thus Johannes had to read and study in secret. He ran away from home at 17 in search of a formal education and ended up at the University of Heidelberg. It was in 1482 that he became what you might call an “accidental monk.” He was headed back home from Heidelberg with a fellow student and they stopped for the night at Sponheim, a Benedictine monastery near Bad Kreuznach. The monks were known for their hospitality and let the two students crash for the night. The following morning, they continued on their way, but before they could get very far, they were caught in a fierce snowstorm. They decided to return to the abbey until the storm passed, and were welcomed back. No sooner had the monks displayed their compassion to the two lads then the storm ended abruptly. Trithemius saw this as some kind of divine manifestation, and decided to stay and become a monk. (His fellow student, not surprisingly, declined.)

Trithemius was later elected abbot of Sponheim and it was there that he did most of his writing, including In Praise of Scribes. Not everyone was a fan of his writing (he had a tendency to add fictional accounts to some of his historical treatises) and his interest in the occult gave him a reputation as a magician, which did not go over especially well in a Medieval monastery, so he resigned in 1503.

Trithemius’ most famous work—outside the printing industry—was a 1499 three-volume book called Steganographia. When the first two volumes appeared, they seemed to be about using magic spirits to send messages over long distances. (If Trithemius were abruptly transported to the 21st century, this is probably what he would think about the telephone or Internet.) It wasn’t until the third volume that people realized that the book was actually about cryptography and steganography.

I suspect everyone knows what cryptography is (codes and ciphers), but steganography—a term which Trithemius coined—is “the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video.” (Think of what Trithemius would make of video, given how much he freaked out about printing.) Basically, steganography refers to secret or hidden messages. Think of invisible ink and things like that.

A pioneer of cryptography and steganography had been an ancient Greek named Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 B.C.). Although primarily a historian (he documented the rise of the Roman Republic and witnessed firsthand the sack of Carthage in 146 B.C.), Polybius also dabbled in other areas, such as government (his work on the separation of powers was an influence on the U.S. Founding Fathers) and cryptography. He developed what is known as a “Polybius square,” a 5×5 matrix with the numbers 1–5 along the top and down the left, and the letters of the alphabet placed in the grid. He used Greek, but any letters and numbers will work. The Polybius square was used to represent words via numeric code:

1 2 3 4 5
1 A B C D E
2 F G H I/J K
3 L M N O P
4 Q R S T U
5 V W X Y Z

Since 26 letters don’t fit evenly into a 5×5 grid, it became customary to combine some letters, usually I and J. (Although if you were trying to decode “HIJACK” or “HIJINKS” there might be some confusion.) So the word “PRINT” would be encoded as “35 42 24 33 44”. The grid can be expanded by adding additional numbers and characters, which is exactly what later cryptographers did, such as Charles Barbier de la Serre.

Barbier was a captain in Napoléon’s army and Napoléon was looking for a way to send coded messages at night without using light. So Barbier developed a system that was based on the Polybius square. He used a 6×6 grid and some common French letter combinations. Voici:

1 2 3 4 5 6
1 a i o u é è
2 an n on un eu ou
3 b d g j v z
4 p t q ch f s
5 l m n r gn ll
6 oi oin ian ien ion ieu

Then, he created a second 6×6 matrix that consisted of an array of dots. Each cell in the grid contained two columns of up to six dots. Which dots were active—and thus corresponded to a given letter—was determined by which row (the leftmost column of dots) and column (the rightmost) the cell was in:

DigNirv-112715-Dot Matrices-Sonography

So, to represent “A,” which was numerically encoded “11” you would have a simple “• •”. To represent “S,” numerically encoded as “46” you would have a more complex matrix of dots:

DigNirv-112715-Dot Matrices-Dots

Four dots on the left indicates fourth row of the matrix, and six dots on the right indicates sixth column.

Simple, n’est-ce pas? OK, so, that’s all well and good, but how did you work all that out in the dark? Well, the dots were embossed on a card, and you read it with your finger.

Poor Barbier. Called “night writing,” it was a great idea—but it proved to be too difficult for soldiers to use and the idea was rejected.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the concept was introduced to a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris (later renamed the National Institute for Blind Youth). Accounts vary; either the student heard about night writing through a newspaper article read to him by a friend or Barbier visited the Institute himself. Either way, this student liked the idea, but recognized its chief flaw: the matrix of dots needed to represent a character was too large for a finger to read easily. So he simplified and modified Barbier’s night writing, and by 1824—at the age of 15—he had a workable tactile reading system for the blind. He would tweak it some more, and published his system in 1829. As you may have guessed by now, that student’s name was Louis Braille and the system he had developed from Barbier’s military encryption scheme was the Braille alphabet.

Braille lettering can be created—as Braille himself used—an awl or a stylus, and later mechanical devices included a kind of Braille typewriter and, eventually, a computer printer that could output Braille. Braille signage—mandated in public spaces by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—can be produced in a variety of ways: Esko has a Braille tool for its Kongsberg series of cutting tables, and many of today’s flatbed UV printers can layer the ink into three-dimensional dots and print Braille.

One wonders, though, if there is a modern-day Johannes Trithemius out there, insisting that printing Braille is inferior to hand-punching it.



Noel L. Brann, The Abbot Trithemius (1462–1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981,

David Malki, “True Stuff: Monk vs. the Printing Press,” Wondermark, January 31, 2011,

Mike Masnick, “A Fifteenth Century Technopanic About The Horrors Of The Printing Press,” TechDirt, February 25, 2011,

“Braille,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 8, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015,

“Charles Barbier,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 9, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015,

“Johannes Trithemius,” Wikipedia, last modified November 13, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015,

“Louis Braille,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 4, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015,

“Night Writing,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 23, 2014, retrieved November 18, 2015,

“Polybius,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 16, 2015, retrieved November 18, 2015,

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