Monday, June 15, 2009

The Advent of Phototypesetting

The typesetting systems described in previous postings all have had one thing in common: the image of each character was created by a font striking a black ribbon and imprinting the character on plain white paper. Although this produced sharp type, it was limited in the size and styles of fonts available. The introduction of phototypesetting technology rapidly changed that by offering broader selections of type available in sizes from 6 point to 72 point. There were several companies that perfected phototypesetting technologies in the early to mid 1970s including AM International (formerly Addressograph-Multigraph), Compugraphic Corp., Linotype Corp. and others.

Phototypesetting is a projection system whereby the flash of a strobe light is aimed through a negative image of each character and projected through a lens onto photographic paper. The size of each character is determined by either the distance from the paper to the lens or by the characteristics of each lens used. Some systems employed only one or two lenses and the operator either manually adjusted the distances or, as in later models, the distances were controlled by internal stepping motors. Coding for all characters and commands were embedded onto some type of storage medium. The first systems utilized paper tape with combinations of holes punched into it to drive the selection of each letter. Specialized keyboard devices, such as the device manufactured by Friden Corp. shown above, were used to create the coded paper tape (right). This technology was cumbersome, not easily correctable, and was quickly replaced by the use of magnetic medium, primarily in the form of large floppy discs. As each line of type was set, the machine inserted the exposed photosensitive paper into a light-proof cassette which, in turn was removed from the machine and put onto a chemical developing machine which safely fed the paper through a series of photographic development chemicals. The damp paper was then allowed to dry before it was able to be used.

The quality of the type was excellent, but if exposed to light, had a relatively short useful life. The paper would readily yellow and the characters would quickly fade, and the developing chemicals left an acrid aroma in the room in which they were used. The next generation of photographic paper was introduced which eliminated most of these problems. Called RC (resin coated) paper, type set on it was very clear, the image didn’t fade, and the paper was a bright white rather than the off white to yellowish color of its predecessor.

Whether type was set using a ribbon on paper or a photographic process, the result was the production of long columns of type, called galleys. The final pages were then created by “pasting up” the publication. The galleys were cut into columns, an adhesive applied to the back and the type was positioned into columns, headlines, captions, and the other elements of the printed page. The work was done on a drawing board and a t-square and triangle were used to properly line up the type. In next week’s posting, I will describe some of the tools used to “paste up” finished pages. It still amazes me to remember the time spent in creating pages this way compared to how easily and quickly it is now done in InDesign.

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  1. I still have a scar on the end of my finger where I sliced it off with an X-acto knife, and I have to say I miss the smell of hot waxers. And don't forget light tables and blue-line grids on the mechanicals.

    The oddest thing we did in the transition between typesetters and desktop publishing was connect a Macintosh 512k up to a Compugraphic 8400 and created type in place, bypassing a lot of pasteup. The 8400 used a CRT to image the type instead of film strips, but boy, was it slow.

  2. I apprenticed at a small printing company from 1976-81, and worked at Auburn University's printing service from 81-84.

    I was introduced to the IBM Composer system, where you typed everything twice, and a year or so later we started using a CompuGraphic IV TG, which used film strips, and had a 2x lense so we could get some font size variation.

    Later, at Auburn University we had Veritypers which used disks and a zoom lens . . . the type was never really that sharp, but the system had a large CRT for reviewing and revising type, which was great.

    We also had an ancient Linotype, which was used for the Extension Service . . . they would set type and lock up a chase with a full page, pull a repro proof, paste the proof up and make overlays and/or add art for various county extension brochures, and it was great to see and hear how "real" typesetting was done, but I digress.

    I worked for a typesetting/design company from 84-86 in Atlanta who used a Comp 8400 system and they too bought an early Mac, a Mac Plus I believe to add tags so it could be output, then I left the company in 86 so I don't know what they did after that.

    In 1987 my freelance work turned to having my own clients and I worked with a typesetter who used yet another system, I can't remember. It used Mag Tapes to store the files, using refrigerator sized units to read and write the data.

    I landed a book project I bought my first Mac, a SE, and began to work with Quark XPress 1.02.

    I betan to work with another printer who was also using Macs as their front end for typesetting, and they would output pages on an Itek imagesetter. We still had to make pasteups and used overlays, but the output had crop marks and usually several rounds of laser proofing meant none of the cutting in "strip-ins" to fix a word here and there.

    The pasteups still had to be shot with a horizontal camera, and halftones had to shot and stripped into the negatives, but it was a great leap forward, and I could kern my type and adjust leading and make it just the way I liked it.

    The 1990s was great with scanners coming of age and finally digital files to film.

    I missed out on a lot of pre-press advancements during the late 1990s through 2003, as I was working with an Internet company and it wasn't until 2004 I started my own company again and made the transition to Adobe's CS and InDesign.

    As a designer, it was frustrating in the past when you had to markup type and maybe take it through a few rounds of work with typesetters to get it exactly as you wanted it.

    Today everything intersects at the same workstation . . . typesetting, image correction, design and pre-press which is great for someone who knows what they are doing and have the time.

    Do I want to go back to the old days and ways . . . not me. I like going from my files to plates.