Notes from the Scrap Heap: A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade, Part 1

I have worked in the typographical trade my entire adult life. I came into the trade as phototypesetting was supplanting hot lead line casting as the way that the printed letters that you read were prepared to be transferred as printing ink onto paper. I had tried to get an apprenticeship in linotype in Massachusetts, but no shop would give me a chance, and I suppose it was just as well. I have some tinges of regret that I never had the “ETAOIN SHRDLU” experience, but considering how many good linotypers could not make the transition from “hot type” to “cold type” in those days, I suppose I should consider myself lucky to have gotten in on a technology that was in its ascendancy.

For me the cold type process had the advantage that it was based on a keyboard almost identical to the typewriter keyboard—on which I could type 130 words per minute when I entered the work force in 1971. This was before the floppy disk or even the cathode ray monitor were in use in composing rooms, and, needless to say, all copy had to be re-keyboarded (though we would never have used that term back then) to set it into type. I was fast, and I was accurate—and I was a quick learner, so I became an expert at all the tasks of the composing room: setting headlines, cutting corrections into the photographic paper “galley,” and running the phototypesetting output devices, that is machines that sent a beam of light through the negative image of a letter, usually on a round disk, which would expose a photographic paper or film. We called that column of type on photographic paper a “galley,” borrowing the term from the metal tray that held linotype slugs in the old hot-metal composing rooms. When those galleys were corrected and ready, they would be waxed on the back, pasted down on boards to produce the page layouts, which would then be photographed. The page negatives would be imposed on large sheets of thick paper or plastic which would be used for making the plates for the offset presses, in such a way that the press sheets or web press cutoffs would have the pages in the correct order when they were folded.

When we “set type” our keystrokes produced perforated paper tape, based on a coding system called TTS, originally designed for teletype. It later became the basis for the American Standard Coding for Information Interchange, more familiarly known by its acronym: ASCII. There were two tape readers in our output device: one which read the individual character codes and one behind it which read the line-ending “justification code.” The justification code determined the width of the “space band” so that the line would completely fill the specified line measure, with the result that the entire galley had a straight left and right margin. We were able to see a representation of our typing on a yellow “hard copy,” which was useful only to see if a mistake had been made, in which case, the entire line had to be deleted and started over again—not so different than it was in the old hot type days, when the slug was just tossed into the “hell box” to be re-smelted into a lead “pig” that would be suspended from a chain on the linotype and melted to a liquid.

In 1975 I worked for the first time on computerized typesetting equipment at the Value Line Investment Survey in New York City. It was still perforated paper tape, but a computerized device, with a whopping 16K of memory!, determined the width of the space bands for justification. After about six months, the company bought an “editing terminal” for the composing room, and for the first time I saw the words I had typed on a cathode-ray monitor. And for the first time, we were able to fix typographical errors without physically cutting the corrected words into the photographic paper galley. The editing terminal output a new perf tape to replace the old one and a completely new galley could be generated, without crooked cut-ins and without big shadows that would have to be opaqued on the film negatives in the prepress department.

When I started in the trade, the equipment that I used allowed for little operator control over the output. The computerized equipment made it possible for the typographers to do a lot more: mixing of typefaces and sizes, adjustments in “leading” (line spacing, pronounced “ledding”), hanging indents (for bulleted or numbered items), and even contour run-arounds (for illustrations) and tabular work. We essentially had to learn a new language—a coding system that gave the commands to the output device. We called it “bell coding,” because letters or numbers following a “bell code” (the byte 111001 in the perf tape), would constitute a command. For example: bell-p12 was the command for 12-point type. Bell-l1406 would tell the output device to set a line measure of 14 picas and 6 points (a little less than 2½ inches). The Variable Input Phototypesetter (V-I-P), made by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, enabled the use of eighteen typefaces at a time, and there was no limit on mixing.

The problem with bell coding is that it was unforgiving, and the operator could not see the result until it came out of the photographic processor. And one little mistake could lead to a big disaster. For example, if someone forgot to put the trailing zero into a command for seven-point type, she or he might end up with 72-point type! And in the tabular work required for financial jobs, it could be a serious obstacle course. Inattention to detail was death, and when disasters happened (as they did every day), someone who knew his or her way around bell coding had to look through the haystack for that offending needle and fix it. That someone was usually me.

During my first years in the graphic arts, in the first half of the 1970s, I had the good fortune to work at every craft except running a press. I set galley type and headlines; I pasted up page mechanicals, and shot photographs through a screen to turn it into a dot-pattern or “halftone”—and then tray-developed the film. I stripped up flats and on occasion burned plates, and then did unskilled bindery work, too, such as collating book signatures, and packing shipping boxes to be sent to the warehouse. It was an education not only in information but in work habits, and I’ve been thankful every day of my life that I had it. It prepared me to weather the technological storms that were to come in the second half of the 1980s and to survive my first dislocation in the 1990s. But that will be the subject of the next post.


2 Responses to Notes from the Scrap Heap: A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade, Part 1

  1. susan kaufman says:

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    Kind regards,
    Susan Kaufman

  2. Zobacz says:

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