Retrocomputing: Clay Tablets.

Literary Magazine to Print on Dead Media -- Clay Tablets

Faced with steep printing costs and the bulk of their readership downloading the online PDF of the magazine, the editors of Space Squid made the decision to return to clay tablets. Space Squid communications editor Matthew Bey says, “Given the choice between printing 2000 paper copies that won’t last ten years, or thirty copies that can last six thousand years, it’s an easy choice to make.”

The clay tablets are unfired as was common practice in Sumeria. Like their historical antecedents they are dried in the sun, giving them a startling durability. “Practically speaking, these tablets could last until the end of the world itself,” says Chang. “Unless someone drops them.”

The Space Squid clay tablet is the first major cultural application of clay tablets since the collapse of Egyptian colonialism in the first century A.D. The tablets are printed using a unique technology that allows multiple impressions of the same text, despite recording on a medium that pre-dates Gutenberg by thousands of years.

Says Bey, “If the Sumerians had been as clever as Space Squid and developed a similar clay-printing technology, they would have sparked the enlightenment era a thousand years before the birth of Christ.”

The clay tablet issue contains most of the content familiar to readers of the paper version of Space Squid. Side one has a seal-imprint with the image of a squid and the name “Space Squid” in phonetic cuneiform. The rest of the front-face features a short story by Kevin Brown titled “Hunting Bigfoot,” hand-lettered in the English alphabet using a wedged stylus in the same manner as the Sumerian scribes. The back side contains an off-color joke and advertisements for the Drabblecast podcast, the movie Bikini Bloodbath, illustrator David Johnston, Krakatoa Shirts, and a live performance of the graphic novel Intergalactic Nemesis.

Video. Photos.

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18 Responses:

  1. edouardp says:

    Damn - the first thing I thought was "Shapeways", and what sort of a program I'd need to convert text into a clay tablet STL file. That's wrong right there.

    • hattifattener says:

      I had a similar reaction- how would I go about building a robot that could use an actual cuneiform stick to write onto a tablet as fast as possible?

      • wikkit42 says:

        For mass producing clay tablets the most scalable process would be to mill one master, make plaster molds from it, and then slip cast clay on the plaster molds. The end result would be really thin, but very accurate.

        Otherwise you could do a drum like a mimeograph and just roll out loads of them.

        • hattifattener says:

          Oh sure. But it wouldn't be as fun as a machine that manipulates a cuneiform stick at inhuman speed.

          • cnoocy says:

            Hmm. You need x, y, rotation of the stick, and optionally impact angle of the stick. It's a bit more complex than a 3d printer like candyfab, but functionally similar, and you don't need to deal with layers. Or you could use a pen-based printer like the ones people have built with lego, and then replace the feed mechanism with something that moves the wedging assembly around over your tablet.

  2. vulpine137 says:

    Ok, that's officially the coolest thing I've seen this year

  3. mcity says:

    > the editors of Space Squid made the decision to return to clay tablets.

    The operative word here is "return".

  4. merovingian says:

    Oh HELL YES.

  5. hadlock says:

    I can't help but wonder if it would have been faster and easier (and less toxic!) to make the positive mold from lead instead of resin. Resin is about the least healthy thing to come in contact with, and you can't reuse it once it's set (in stone! ha ha! I crack myself up). You could heat up the lead on the stove in a pan or just run your oven on the cleaning cycle right in the pan.

    • thumperward says:

      Presumably the process is a little more involved when you can't do it all at room temperature. I wouldn't imagine that you can just pour molten lead into a baking tray full of plasticine, for instance. Not to mention that it's presumably easier to ask for casting resin in the local art shop than ingots of lead.

      • hadlock says:

        Lead readily melts in a pot on the stove; you can buy casting lead at many hobby shops; bait and tackle shops are notorious for having copious amounts of lead on hand as well! Baking the plasticene to 250 degrees for half an hour would get rid of any water in the clay (steam explosions), or you could just put the lead weights on top of the plasticine in the plan and stick the whole contraption in the oven on the cleaning cycle.

    • marypcb says:

      if you're going to get into molten lead, you're re-inventing print...

    • wisn says:

      The clay tablets would have to be washed of lead residue after they dry, while tablets pressed off a resin matrix will be clean. The resin matrix is probably going to retain image integrity through more copies than a lead matrix would, too. So in the process of creating the matrix, lead is less toxic than resin, but resin's pretty gosh-darn inert and durable once it sets.

      Of course, after the printing is done, the lead can be melted down and reused for something else, while the resin slab gets to be landfill.

      • hadlock says:

        Well they're only doing ~15 copies of each. Lead is tougher stuff than you think; at least it's tougher than modeling clay! Your fingernails are about as tough as lead, but they don't wear down to nothing during daily use. I'm not sure what you're talking about with lead residue.

        • wikkit42 says:

          Touching lead results in the transfer of a small amount of lead. Lead is toxic and carcinogenic. Casting resin and catalyst are toxic, but they're not carcinogenic, and once they've set, they're quite safe. The lead, and everything it touches, will remain toxic.

          I see you got shot down on YouTube as well, rightly so.

          • hadlock says:

            It must be nice living in your bubble.

            • wikkit42 says:

              Yes, understanding science is quite advantageous. It's much more effective than having to make up things to be worried about and trying to sow fear, as you're doing.

              On the up side, you're in line to be a Republican strategist! Always nice to have opportunities.

  6. marypcb says:

    Harry Turtledove, Agent of Byzantium; the invention of printing onto clay tablets with reusable type 'presses' of fired clay. ;-)