From bread and beer to textiles and metallurgy

Believe it or not, technical communications did not begin with the US Military or in the Industrial Age, where everyone needed manuals to operate the new machinery driving the expansion of the middle class and leading us into this Age of Technology.  The Sumerians wrote recipes with wedged sticks on clay tablets.  In fact, pre-industrial societies invested as much labor in textiles as in food production. So, it makes sense that these arts were documented.


Sumerian cuneiform recipe for beer 3100-3000 BCE

Deadly Water

How important do you think a mere recipe for beer was to early readers? Civilization makes water unsafe to drink. Fermented beer didn’t give you cholera or typhus, so direly proven in the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak by neighborhood beerworks workers–their daily allotment of beer kept them from drinking that well’s deadly water. Of course, Mother Nature plays her own tricks,  luring us to drink cool, sweet stream water only to give us a nice dose of Giardia. The survival tactic of drinking fermented beverages promoted the growth of Civilization. And merchants were quick to learn that good recipes sold more product.

Recipes for Success

Recipes are technical writing. Procedures and ingredients for many industries are precise. It’s basic chemistry that gluten strands form as you knead flour mixed with water, fat, and active yeast, turning the concoction into dough…if you’ve done everything just right. Another area of precision is metallurgy. If you’re off just a little bit when measuring and mixing ingredients or you skip a step, the product could literally blow up in your face. And let’s not even think about the human cost of that precious recipe for black powder. Directions are critical to learn and follow, and more importantly, the written form is necessary for training and to reliably reproduce a product.


Leiden Papyrus X has 111 recipes for extracting precious metals (~250 CE)

It’s in the Pattern


Chinese parable on weaving from the biography of Mencius (77-6 BCE)

Weaving and knitting patterns are technical writing. Textiles were once more valued than people today buying off-the-rack bargains think. Sure, today Gucci and Versace textiles command the big bucks, but in past ages, clothing and linens were passed down through generations. You made the fabric. No one wasted a scrap of cloth (ever hear tales about the Rag-and-Bone man?). A young woman with a large hope chest full of linens was considered a catch because it meant that she had mad skills for weaving and sewing. Celtic tartan weaving patterns designate clan, and so were coveted and closely guarded secrets, explicitly followed when woven in castle keeps. Historic plaid examples date to burials as early as 1000 BCE.


Egyptian ‘Coptic socks’ 1000-1300 CE

And whether it be true knitting, as illustrated by these Coptic socks, or Nålebinding, an early single-needle form with examples predating knitted historic examples, patterns were written to maintain consistency and spread from Egypt to Spain by Arabic invaders. I love this quote from journalist/novelist Linda Grant:

Clothes as text, clothes as narration, clothes as a story. Clothes as the story of our lives. And if you were to gather all the clothes you have ever owned in all your life, each baby shoe and winter coat and wedding dress, you would have your autobiography.  

This speaks to the documentation of life; the documentation of the Human System.

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