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No. 687:
A Gift of Books

Today, let's invent the book. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Pergamon is a name we recognize but may have trouble placing. It's an echo out of ancient history. Actually, Pergamon was once among the largest cities in the world. Now it's called Bergama. It's in Western Turkey -- South of Istanbul, North of Izmir. It sits on a hill, 16 miles from the Aegean Sea.

Pergamon became capital of the Attalid dynasty after 280 BC. It was one of two great centers in the cosmopolitan world that formed after Alexander died. The other was Alexandria, in Egypt.

The Attalids took their name from King Attalus. He reigned until just after 200 BC. Attalus began an artistic Renaissance in Pergamon. His son, Eumenes, continued it.

Eumenes set out to build the greatest library in the world. He meant to outdo the famous library in Alexandria. What followed was the stuff of black comedy.

His soldiers ranged the land stealing books. Book lovers buried what they could in secret hiding places. Pergamon scribes forged manuscripts. The library grew to 200,000 volumes.

Egypt didn't take all that lying down. She quit supplying papyrus to Pergamon. That could've ended Pergamon's pretensions. But Pergamon scholars had an ace up their sleeve. They had a rich wool industry. They had plenty of sheep. And they'd already invented a new writing medium.

They'd begun writing on sheepskin, or vellum. They called the stuff charta pergamene. That meant "paper of Pergamon." The words charta pergamene mutated into "parchment."

It's harder to roll parchment into a scroll than it is papyrus. Replacing papyrus led to inventing a whole new kind of storage. Someone thought of cutting parchment into rectangular pages and sewing them together. Someone invented the book.

Soon after that, both Pergamon and Egypt fell under Roman control. Then, in 40 BC, Roman soldiers in Egypt accidently burned part of Alexandria's library. Anthony, in his obsessive love for Cleopatra, did a remarkable thing. To repay the loss, he gave the Pergamon Library to her.

So we remember Alexandria and we forget Pergamon. But their brief competition changed human history. Pergamon developed the book. That's the most efficient information storage technology we've ever known. After 2000 years it still hasn't been replaced. The computer might change that, but it hasn't yet.

So, next time you read the name Pergamon, remember. It gave you one of the most important inventions the world has ever known. It gave you the very book you're reading.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Sarton, G., Galen of Pergamon. Lawrence, KA: University of Kansas Press, 1954, Chapter II.

Hansen, E.V., The Attalids of Pergamon. 2nd ed., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

I'm grateful to Frank Holt and Pericles Ktonis for help with this episode.

Bibliophiles might prefer that I had introduced the old Latin word codex for the first books. I'll excuse myself on the basis that the Germanic word "book" is more elegant. It traces back to the Gothic word boka, which means a letter of the alphabet. Codex literally means the trunk of a tree or a block of wood.