Richard Southall's Reflections on the Transition from Hot Metal to Digital Typesetting


"Nothing is more striking, over the years covered by this survey, than the progressive dematerialization of the means by which texts are prepared for reproduction. At one extreme, in 1915, are the thousand pages of hand-set type for Fortescue's History, waiting to be printed at R & R Clark's works in Edinburgh. At the other are the resources used to produce this book, where the single concrete realization of the completed text that existed before printing was begun was the output from a laser imagesetter. In betwen are the disappearance of three-dimensional punches, matrices and type that came with direct-photography photocomposition, and the disappearance of the photographic matrix with the electronic technologies that followed.

"Over the same period the means used to produce the types with which text is composed have followed a similar course. The ranks of drawing desks or pantographs receding into the distance at Salfords date from the great days of the Monotype Corporation between the wars; but even in 1918 Rudolf Koch's Die Schriftgeisserei im Schattenbild shows 27 men, two women, two boys and two horses at work on the manufacture and despatch of foundry type. By contrast, the team that worked on the Colorado project, which in two years after 1995 produced all the type used for residential and business entries in telephone directories for most of the western United States, was made up at its largest of six people. The work was done in three different countries; the only concrete objects exchanged between the participants were character drawings and photocomposed proofs of type.

"In some ways the end of the twentieth century has brought the business of type manufacture back almost to where it began. Claude Garamont cut the punches for the grecs du Roy himself and had the matrices justified by Paterne Robelot, whom he chose for the task because he was clever at it. In the last couple of decades the development of computer-based typemaking tools and the world-wide web have meant that designers can now make and distribute type entirely on their own; though unless, like Garamont or the Colorado group, they are fulfilling a specific commission, marketing their work is still a problem.

"For the manufacture and composition of printer's type, paradoxically enough, the first decade of the twenty-first century is a period of relative technological calm. The basic tools - PostScript, TrueType, networked personal computers, page makeup programs and desktop laser printers - all appeared in the whirlwind of the 1980s. Increasing computing power has meant that more can now be done with them, and done more quickly; but the processes of type design, and the fundamental tehcnologies that underlie them, are very much the same today as they were for Sumner Stone in the 1980s.

"If typemaking tools changed beyond recognition in the early 1960s and again in the 1980s, there has been no change at all since 1445 or so in the task that types for composing text - or rather, the character images the types give rise to- are required to perform. The first objective in the design, manufacture, composition and reproduction of text types remains the same as it has always been: to put legible character images, legibly arranged, before the reader's eyes. It is the means of doing this that changed during the twentieth century, not the objective itself. The second objective - to give the type a voice of its own to speak with - has also remained the same, altthough changes in rendering techniques have had more effect on the difficulty of achieving this" (Southall, Printer's type in the twentieth century. Manufacturing and design methods [2005] 223-24).

Timeline Themes