Printing history


When I left school in 1968 I joined the printing industry as an apprentice compositor.

At that time the industry was still heavily reliant on the letterpress "hot metal" method of producing printed matter, but printing was the first industry to suffer major transformation by the "new technology" (and indeed to this day is one of the most significantly affected). This meant that apprentices of the era were expected to be productive members of staff using traditional methods at their place of work; yet at the same time, in order to perform well in examinations and be awarded their City and Guilds certificates, had to wholeheartedly embrace the new technology for ten weeks a year at technical college, in my case Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.

I started working life at St Christopher Press in Letchworth producing small jobbing work such as letterheads and pamphlets, hand-setting type from traditional double cases using a new stainless steel setting stick for large measure setting and an old brass one handed down from a journeyman (Hiram Phillips) for small measures. When St Christopher closed my apprenticeship was transferred 50 yards across the road to the Garden City Press, which was a much larger establishment handling a greater variety of work including large numbers of books and periodicals.

At the Garden City Press I was soon asked to try the Monotype keyboard for size - I showed an aptitude for keyboard work and stayed in that department for the rest of my apprenticeship. The Monotype (pictured) and the Linotype were the most common means of mechanical setting at that time. The Linotype had magazines of brass character moulds which, in response to keyboard instructions, fell into place to form (along with variable width "space bands") a line at a time of whatever job was being produced. When the line was complete a handle was pulled to inject molten type metal into the moulds from a pot built onto the machine. The resulting "slug" of type was then ejected onto a galley and the operation continued with the keying of the next line. Linotype setting was used mainly for shorter run or lower quality work as the metal alloy used was softer than that used in the Monotype process and consequently less hard-wearing and quicker to lose its sharpness of reproduction.

The Monotype was somewhat different in that the casting unit was separate from the keyboard unit. Under this system, the motive power of which was compressed air, the operator's keystrokes caused a reel of paper to be perforated with a series of holes unique to each character. At the end of a line a rotating drum indicated a figure to be used as a spacing value which was transmitted to the perforated tape by means of pressing the appropriate combination of spacing keys. When a job was finished the tape was torn off and taken to the caster operator who ran it through the Monotype caster backwards so that spacing values were read first and, again by means of compressed air, the tape was read and instructions passed to a mould containing matrices for each character. The mould would move to present the appropriate matrix for injuction with metal, this operation was conducted at some speed and was rather noisy. Type was cast a character at a time and ejected onto galleys as each line was completed.

An advantage of Monotype over Linotype, additional to the quality issue, was that corrections at character level could be made by a compositor using his setting stick, as opposed to a "lino" job having to be passed back to the machine operator who would need to reset a whole line no matter how trivial the correction required. The Monotype caster could also be used to produce leads and quads for use as spacing material and of course to produce complete fonts for the purpose of refilling type cases.

When the type had served its purpose (ie the job had been printed), its method of production would affect the manner of its disposal, assuming that it was not to be put into storage for a possible future reprint. (This form of storage would normally be avoided as such type would be unavailable for use in other jobs and represented the tying-up of substantial capital. Certainly for a large job, eg a book, it was far more economical to make printing plates from the type and store these instead.)

Back to disposal: In the case of linotype slugs these would be sent to the foundry to be melted down and recast as ingots for reuse on the machines. The same fate would usually befall Monotype text matter, but in the case of display lines set in Monotype or smaller jobs such as posters or leaflets which might be set in a specialist font bought from an outside founder, the type would be returned to the case. This was a job often given to apprentice compositors and entailed the dismantling of the job, each character being returned to its appropriate compartment in the case. Bearing in mind that each case carried only one size of type, it was obviously important that the right case be chosen for both typeface and size. Dire consequences would be visited upon persons believed to have caused a compositor to fill his setting stick with a mixture of wrong font characters of varying sizes. The process of returning the type to the case was known as distribution. This was abbreviated to "dissing" which is of course quite different to the meaning of that term these days.

Having mentioned posters, I should add that large lettering would often be reproduced from wooden type which was sized in 'lines' rather than 'points', see bold paragraph below. My recollection is that a line equalled 12 points, but look it up, don't take my word for it. For purposes of comparison the average newspaper story is printed in 9 point type.

Whatever the method used to set the type, it was next passed to the Composing Room, where a Compositor would process the job toward printing. Taking a magazine page as an example, the first stage would be to place the relevant type on a shallow three-sided metal tray known as a galley. A galley for page make-up would be about the size of the page to be produced plus two or three inches (the galleys used during the initial production of the type, or for proofing of type prior to being made up into pages, would tend to be seven or eight inches wide and about two feet in length). The lines and paragraphs of type would then be spaced out to match the intended layout of the page, which would usually have been communicated to the compositor by means of a hand drawn plan which could either be a very accurate representation of the finished job or just a rough sketch of the basic elements.

This would seem like a good time to mention a few measurements which may help anyone reading (if anyone is reading) who is not familiar with the printing industry.

1 pica consists of 12 points
6 picas equals .996 of an inch
type height is .918 of an inch

As mentioned above, the average newspaper text type size is 9 point

Spacing was achieved either by strips of type metal known as leads, usually of widths varying from a half point to 12 points; or for wider spacing "furniture" would be used - this was either of wood, metal (which had a girder-type cross section), or in later years a bakelite type material. Furniture would usually be of widths from 2 picas (24 points) up to 10 picas (120 points), the bakelite version came in pre-formed standard lengths, the metal and wooden versions could also be obtained in longer lengths which would then be cut to size as required. Unfortunately in less well-regulated composing rooms it would be difficult to find furniture in lengths at the top end of the scale - unscrupulous compositors would often cut them up to use at the lower end, rather than take the trouble to find the correct smaller size (they would then of course blame the apprentices)!

It may be stating the obvious, but it should be pointed out that spacing material was made lower than the type it accompanied, in order that its top surface would avoid the inking rollers and leave the required blank space on the printed page. Sometimes if a printed job is studied closely, spaces between words will appear as a black rectangle - this is an indication that the spacing metal between the words has risen up 'off its feet' and has gathered ink and been printed. This mishap can usually be taken as an indication that the job was produced 'monotype' as in a 'linotype' slug-cast job the whole line is in effect one character and its components cannot alter in relation to one another once cast; however a similar phenomenon, known as 'hair lines', does occur in slug setting where type metal occasionally found its way through gaps between adjacent character moulds - hairlines are just as likely to be found between the characters in a word as in the space between words.

In addition to typematter and spacing material, a page might also contain a 'graphic' element, ie a photo or line drawing, and in many cases some sort of a border or frame - perhaps surrounding a picture or a text item for which more prominence was required.








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