June 11

In a letter written upon this date in 1886 from New Brunswick, New Jersey, John F. Babcock, a compositor in the office of The Fredonian wrote of the earliest known contests of speed in typesetting in the United States. The letter was addressed to William C. Barnes, one of the great “swifts” of the period:

“In consequence of absence from home for several days, I have not found time to answer before your communication of May 25, relative to a typesetting contest in which Robert Bonner was engaged forty years ago. At that time Bonner and I were compositors in the American Republican office, a morning daily, printed and published in Ann Street, New York, on the southeast corner of Nassau. It was in the summer of 1846. But a few weeks previous Bonner had arrived from Hartford, Conn., and was probably not more than twenty-one years of age—I think less. He was then a very slim youth, and probably did not weigh more than 100 pounds, if as much.

“He soon gained a reputation as a fast compositor, and frequent races took place between him and the other comps. Almost invariably Bonner came out ahead. The results of these contests were published frequently in the Republican and other newspapers, and there was considerable excitement among the craft in regard to them. There were several typos who would exceed 2,000 ems in an hour for an hour or two at a time, but when the contests exceeded five or six hours Bonner invariably came out ahead. Finally, there was a small wager that no man could set 24,000 ems, solid matter, in twenty-four consecutive hours. Bonner accomplished the feat in something over twenty hours, and stopped. Then a wager of ten dollars was raised, or rather a purse (for Bonner would not bet) that he could not set at the same average rate for the whole twenty-four hours. The number of ems fixed was 33,000. The type was solid minion [7-point], reprint copy, twenty-five ems wide, all breaks to be omitted. The proof was to be read by copy, and the whole finished within the twenty-four hours. Work commenced at 12 o’clock, noon, and continued until the next noon. Lunches, in the shape of sandwiches, were placed within reach of Bonner, and he occasionally took a bite and a drink of coffee. Bonner was a very clean compositor, and did not average more two typographical errors on a galley. When the City Hall bell struck 12 the following day, Bonner threw down his stick, emptied his last lines and the type was measured—it having been agreed that there should be no measurement while he was at work, thus avoiding excitement. It was found that he had set up 32,997 ems, lacking just three ems of the amount set for his task. By universal consent, the judges permitted him to receive the ten dollars.”

Leave a Reply