When you’re in the middle of something, you obviously can’t see how it’ll all end up. We sort of knew that hot metal was looking a bit sick, but I don’t think any of us thought the disease was terminal. We tended to see hot metal as the norm: Monotype as the ideal and Linotype as an economic compromise on that ideal, used for newspapers. (Similarly we found it hard to see beyond letterpress printing as against offset lithography.) Photosetting was, in our mind, an inadequate effort to mimic the quality of Monotype setting with slightly better economics. We assumed the attempt was doomed to failure: after all the quality of a well-set Monotype job excellently printed by letterpress on a good paper was unambiguously good. What we didn’t recognize was that the excellent is always vulnerable to the acceptable when there are savings involved. We all thought, wrongly, that we were above that sort of crassness.

IMGP2164Here from the Deutsches Museum in Munich is the Intertype Fotosetter, in the 1960s the most used phototypesetting machine in the world. It looks rather like a Linotype hot-metal typecaster, which isn’t too surprising as it was just an adaptation of that very thing. In place of a pot of hot metal, it had an exposure unit which would create the image. The Linotype matrices, the “mats”, were adapted to contain a photographic negative rather than a real matrix, as you may see below. Justification might involve some letter spacing as well as word spacing — a big barrier to its use for book work.

Fotosetter (left), Linotype (right)








As you can tell from the video I posted recently, From Hot Metal to Cold Type (in which this machine briefly features: the photo of the mats comes from it) industry responses to the early moves to photo-typesetting were varied, somewhat Heath-Robinson-like, and rather panicky when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.

For a number of years hot metal typesetting and photosetting co-existed. There wasn’t a price differential: at least to the customer there wasn’t. If a printer had large sums invested in hot metal setting equipment he had no real option other than using it, even if that meant charging less per page than last year, and thus it went. Naturally however, when it came to reinvestment, the traffic was all in one direction. Gradually the price of typesetting went down and down and down — in the fifty years from 1965 to 2015 the price of typesetting went down by something like two thirds or three quarters, more if you factor in inflation.

In the early days phototypesetting worked by exposing light through a negative image of a character to place it on photosensitive paper or film. Then came a few months (!) when the image was created on a cathode ray tube and thus conveyed to a similar carrier. The biggest efficiency gain came however with the digitization of typesetting where the character was created as a series of raster lines (irregular around the edges if looked at under high magnification) which initially were output onto film or photosensitive paper, but eventually output directly to a printing plate, or now, via digital printing, directly onto the paper. Just saying it indicates how many steps, each involving workers, were thereby eliminated.