The Writing Code

The Writing Code premiered September 2007.

This fast paced, educationally entertaining three-part documentary series explores the origin, history, and art of writing: the greatest invention of humankind.

Language makes us human. Writing is the technology that made civilization possible. The Greatest Invention, the first program in the series, reveals how and when writing was invented; what is common to all writing systems and how writing was invented to keep records. Modern knowledge of history and the look of the world today—so dominated by the written word—would not have been possible without cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese pictographs, syllabaries and the amazing invention of the alphabet. The invention of writing 5,000 years ago may be more important than the invention of the wheel.

Persian calligraphyThis Persian calligrapher took years to master his craft. The history of writing is a series of revolutions, from the Gutenberg Press to the personal computer.
The second program, The Art and the Craft, shows the history of writing as a series of revolutions. To write, one needs something to write on and something to write with. Writing evolved with technologies like papyrus and paper, movable type and the mass production of books and newspapers—as well as fortune cookies and street signs. Viewers learn what, why and how writers write, using clay, stone, papyrus, paper, stylus, quill pen, the Gutenberg press, the typewriter, stenotype, linotype, and now the laptop. Writers throughout history are discussed—from Homer and Melville to Elmore Leonard, Quincy Troupe and Margaret Atwood. The program explains the difference between prose and poetry, laws and epics, and grammar and punctuation. Meanwhile, the episode reveals, everyone can use an editor—except a genius like Robert Frost.

The ways we learn to read and write throughout the world and throughout our history are explored in the third program, The Literate Society. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, only scribes, priests and rulers were the literate “elite.” In America 200 years ago, the idea that everyone should learn to read and write led to a system of public education for all citizens. From the one-room schoolhouse to today’s overcrowded public classrooms, learning to read and write has never been easy. Now, in the digital age of computers and the World Wide Web, the skills of literacy are changing. We can’t just “acquire knowledge” anymore; there’s far too much of it available. We are inundated with information. The new literacy involves learning what to throw away and learning how to choose. We are in the midst of a revolution we haven’t seen since the Gutenberg Press changed the world in the fifteenth century. Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, warns of the importance of keeping his invention a “universal and open space.” New ways of learning, new art forms and new scientific breakthroughs lie before us, and, in thirty years, the world will be totally transformed.

Goals of Mass LiteracyIn ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, only scribes, priests and rulers were literate. Mass literacy was not a goal until the 19th century in America.
The subject matter, stressing the fundamental importance of writing in everything we do, has never been covered like this in a television series before. Featuring authors, anthropologists, linguists, historians, editors and poets, the series highlights writing as the greatest invention, looking further at the art and craft as well as true definition of literacy in our society today.

 The three-part series features world class leaders in the study of writing including William Bright and Peter Daniels, editors of The World’s Writing Systems; Victor Mair, Chinese writing scholar at The University of Pennsylvania; James Allen, Professor of Egyptology at Brown University; Zahi Hawass, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities; Richard Parkinson, British Museum; Steven Tinney, University of Pennsylvania; Lise Menn, socio-linguist from the University Of Colorado at Bolder; Denise Schmandt-Besserat, pioneer in pre-writing; and Mark Aronoff, Professor of Linguists, Stony Brook University; Steven Pinker, Harvard linguist and author; Carol Chomsky, Harvard University reading specialist; Tim Berners-Lee, MIT, inventor of World Wide Web; Margaret Atwood, author and Elmore Leonard, crime writer; Quincy Troupe, the winner of The American Book award; Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Hayden Planetarium; and Chad Smith, Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

The Writing Code was produced by award-winning filmmakers Gene Searchinger, Suzanne Bauman, and Norman C. Berns. For more information and to comment on the program, please visit

Funded by:

National Endowement for the Arts
National Science Foundation
The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation
Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation
© Copyright 2007 Ways of Knowing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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