New Technology And Typesetting

It is somewhat ironic that typesetting, last of the ancient craft skills of the printer to be automated, is now the first to lend itself to the various demands of the current models of Mr. Babbage’s calculating machine. And this notwithstanding the fact that typography has been notably served by printing historians of the century who have made every effort to raise its status to higher levels than those of mere mechanics.

As an instance of this approach we can cite once more a phrase from that most quoted paragraph written by Daniel Berkeley Updike concerning typography: “. . . I brought in humanizing employment can indeed be followed merely as a trade, but which if perfected into an art, or even broadened into a profession. . . .”

Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution reached out to encompass the printing craft, papermaking was the first-hand skill to feel its effects, followed, naturally enough, by the mechanization of the printing press.

Stereotyping and electrotyping came next, along with significant developments in press design, before the experiments of Ottmar Mergenthaler resulted in the first fully successful typesetting machine adequate for the demands to be made upon it. Thus, the composing room was industrialized some 70 years after the pressroom.

The following 65 years witnessed very little improvement in Mergenthaler’s basic invention—in terms of increased production. The later models were of course improved by the typical gadgetry of our industrial capacity. With some justification printers complained by the 1940s that typesetting machines were developing into miniature type foundries, and that there was little evidence of any effects to noticeably increase the productive capacity of the equipment.

Aside from this difficulty, printers were quite satisfied with the typographic product. When typesetting genes arranged these, the standard foundry types of the period were made available. However it was not long before the composing-machine manufacturers develop their own styles, and of very high quality indeed, comparable to the best designs of the foundries.

In the beginning the compositors adopted in view of the typographic quality of machine-set type, but they were soon soothed by the increased volume of work produced by most composing rooms.

Improvement in Quality

The manufacturers made every effort to improve the quality of their types, employee excellent designers to create new styles and constantly seeking the advice of the most knowledgeable typographers concerning their product. Consequently, the mechanization of typography was accomplished with very little strain within a remarkably short period of time.

In the post-World War II era, the first important departure from automated hot-metal typesetting methods came about through the application of photography to the process. Since in most instances the phototypesetting machines were developed by those firms already engaged in producing the earlier machines, their exceptions was never much in question. The quality of photo-typography was, if anything, superior to the hot-metal typesetters. Photography, carefully planned, can offer a number of advantages when compared with the more rigid patterns encountered in traditional methods.

Coming of Computers

During the 1960s the constant demand to increase productivity capabilities in typesetting has brought about the harnessing of both hot-metal and photographic typesetters to computers. It didn’t take electronics engineers very long to determine that the output of all typesetting machines was impossibly slow and that if they were to successfully combine computers with typesetting procedures they could accomplish this feat only by making the computers themselves the typesetting devices.

The engineers’ impatience with what they call the Gutenberg syndrome of the printing industry now encompasses the whole field of typesetting to include not only the production speed but the appearance of printing types. Under the new terminology, tapes have become simply how for numeric symbols, and the reasoning which produced this designation is scarcely sympathetic to the subtleties of difference between American Type founders’ Garamond and Monotype Garamont.

And herein lies the problem for traditionally oriented typographers. At what point do they rise in protest at the risk of becoming, as one printer has somewhat bitterly put it, “barnacles upon the backside of progress.”

In the truly high-speed cathode ray tube (CRT) image generating systems, the characters are “digitize” former written programs stored in a computer. The storage problems are acute if the cost factor is to be held to a minimum. Is quite possible for the computer to produce the most beautiful typographic character ever captured by puncher matrix, but this is accomplished at the cost of valuable storage. Hence it is questioned by the engineers from that viewpoint alone, although there is little doubt that esthetic considerations are suspect.

Admiration for Speed

While there are several methods of duplicating cast type by the pewter-typesetting, or image generating, devices, those most desired by the engineers are those which produced characters in the shortest time. The “beautiful” letter of the engineers is therefore looked upon with great scorn by the typographer.

It is high time that the two got together.

Many printers fully realize that technological changes must be accepted if there is to be meaningful progress in typesetting procedures. There naturally opposed, however, to agreeing to a deterioration of quality which is too often accompanied by a complete lack of understanding about the historic approach to the production of the printed word.

What is required is a dialogue between two groups. Obviously increase production will mean greater profits for printers, so it is to ferret baggage to investigate the new technologies. To the large corporations now seeking to market complex new machines to the printing industry, cooperation with printers is vitally necessary if machines are to be built which are acceptable to those who will put them to use.

In this transitional period, when traditional methods are being seriously questioned, most photographers are honestly troubled about the future. It is obvious to many of them that while vast changes are not going to occur next month or even next year, they’re going to have to reconcile themselves to numerous annuity will bring ideas in the not-too-distant future.

Upon the responsible approach to these problems depends a reasonable solution over which they can attain some control. Should this be the case, then perhaps the shifting of emphasis from one technology to another will be easily accomplished as it was 80 years ago.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the January 1969 issue of Printing Impressions.


One Comment

  1. Howard Hansen says:

    Its great to see that you do have some very interesting stories coming in from alumni and friends of Alexander Lawson. It is hard to believe that his 100th birthday will be coming in December. I have never lost my fascination for the history of Printing. As I told my nephew when he was in the 4th grade, for a class project, he asked me to describe “What is a Printer.” I explained that a printer has to be part chemist, part mechanic, part writer, part artist, and has to have an appreciation for the ability of man to transform abstract sounds and thoughts into graphic forms. Printing is what separates the human species into a civilized community, from all other creatures on the planet. —Certainly, my answer was inspired by Professor Lawson.


    Howard Hansen, RIT School of Printing ’67
    Curator, Museum of Printing, No. Andover, MA
    Owner, Hansen Brothers Printing Co., Stoughton, MA

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