May 16

It was a happy day, indeed, for authors with writers’ cramp and for typesetters who had to follow copy, when on May 16, 1893 Patent No. 497560 was issued to a Brooklynite named Herman L. Wagner, who in company with his brother Franz developed the first typewriter with a visible front-strike design. The writer could observe, in other words, the material which the contraption was turning out. The brothers Wagner sold their machine to John T. Underwood, son of the man who pioneered the carbons and ribbons business and thus was the famous Underwood typewriter born.

In the relatively sophisticated terminology of the 1960’s, this “visible image” from the typewriter is known as hard copy. But it appears that writers may soon find themselves back in the pre-1893 era, with no comfortably-read record of their efforts in front of them and with no Wagner boys to help them out. This problem became apparent when the technology of typesetting became automated to such an extent that ordinary composing machines such as Linotypes and Monotypes were simply not efficient enough to do the job by themselves.

In the old—and more golden—days, the author produced his manuscript in double-spaced typed lines on 8½ x 11 inch bond paper, and more or less hopefully submitted the finished result to the publisher’s office. Depending upon his skill in placing his ideas on paper there would occur at this point some changes in the manuscript, but eventually it would be sent off to the printer who then placed one sheet at a time on the copy board of a typesetting machine and transcribed the typed characters to metal type. A post-World War II innovation was the transfer to film characters, but the essential details as far as the writer was concerned did not change.

The publisher’s production manager, cautious of author’s alteration charges for photoset type, laid down some stringent rules for the editors, when a manuscript was to be set on a film machine, since last minute changes in this medium could be exceedingly costly. A year or so ago, the computer was harnessed to the typesetting machines of the hot metal variety and the more recently arrived phototypesetters. Not only did it become necessary for the author to be so very right at the beginning, but it became too costly to let him have fun with proofs. The poor scribbler was informed about coded tape, both paper and magnetic, tape blending, tape conversion, tape merging, and a host of other technical details about computer “hardware” and “software.” The problem, it seemed, was that corrections made upon completed typesetting were becoming so expensive, that unless the author cooperated he might find his manuscript gathering dust on the publisher’s desk.

The hard copy produced upon the tape-punching device is evidently to become the “proof” which the author is to correct—a stupefying situation for any writer to face, as anyone who has ever toiled away producing a manuscript can attest. By this method the writer can no longer enjoy the rebirth of his original copy into the printer’s types. Solid, well-inked galley proofs can make a considerable difference in refreshing his viewpoint when it has become jaded. How can another typed manuscript take the place of the so beautiful type of the proofs. Oh! So that’s how it’s going to look! And out comes the blue pencil, to be applied with religious fervor.

But the damage has been done. Perhaps the top writers of a publisher’s list will be allowed their old freedom, but for the rest it’s going to be a new way of life. The computer engineers have said that the completed tape will be in the image of the hard copy, as the electronic guts of a computer simply cannot commit errors once the signals have been passed. The writer will have to learn to read another version of his original manuscript. He will have to make corrections on it, if he can think of any, so that a correction tape may be punched, which will automatically merge with the original to put the copy into type—and at such savings in production costs!

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