Archives for category: Letterpress

This story can kill two birds with a single stone. In the first video you may observe the printing of pressure-sensitive adhesive labels, as well as receive a good introduction to flexographic printing. Now labels can of course be printed by any method, not just flexography (letterpress). The secret sauce consists in the paper stock and in the post-imaging processing, die-cutting, slitting into rolls and so on. Lithography and gravure are responsible for a large proportion of the labels you’ll encounter. More customized labels (shorter runs) will probably have been printed on a digital press.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The second video shows the detail of how the labels are applied — although in this video the operator is taking each label by hand. You can see how the adhesive labels are carried on a shiny paper carrier. The labels have been die-cut to shape immediately after printing, and the background paper simultaneously removed. When the carrier sheet (which has avoided the die cut and now carries only the labels) takes that final 300º or so bend out of the way the label continues straight on to where it meets up with its target, a bottle, a carton, an apple, or in this case the operator’s fingers.

The picture below shows the die-cut adhesive paper being separated from the carrier sheet, after the die-stamping which has just taken place in the unit to the right of the picture.

Avery’s website gives you a “recipe” for the construction of their adhesive label paper:

Here the face stock represents the label, and the liner is what I was referring to as the carrier sheet.

Surprising to relate, I guess, but when I was a young man, you’d still go to a tailor if you needed a new jacket, and he’d cut it out from a bolt of cloth and sew it up to fit you. Of course I lived in a wool town so such practices may have gone on a bit longer there.

In a post by Abner Aldarondo the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, introduces us to a sixteenth century Spanish manual of tailoring by master tailor Diego de Freyle, Geometria y traça para el oficio de los sastres (Geometry and patterns for the trade of tailoring) — which all looks nostalgically familiar to me. A digitized version of the book can be found here.

Here is the tailor in his workshop — OK the clothes did look a bit different in my youth, but what’s going on is what went on then. The tailor in the middle is holding a pair of dividers and a Spanish yardstick: la vara. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it.) Obviously patterns were cut, and we are here given 48 of them. Below is one for a cape and doublet.

The book was printed in Seville in 1588 by Fernando Diaz. The format is unusual: it’s landscape, 10 x 29 cms. almost 4″ x 11½”, no doubt because they needed to accommodate all these woodcuts along with scant text. Mr Aldarondo also suggests that the format helped to keep the book open. The pages are numbered in leaves, so that folio 7 recto is followed by folio 7 verso, and also show signature marks at the bottom right. The 72-page book was probably printed two pages to view, four per sheet, so presumably the sheet was something like 8½” x 11¾” with two sheets gathered together to make a signature. I haven’t managed to figure out why four pages (folios 7 and 8) are printed so that only a diagonal chunk of text is shown. Here’s folio 7 recto:

It’s not like it’s some press error, for example having a loose sheet of paper lying on top of the forme and taking the ink intended for the book, because the running heads show up in the expected location, and you can see the signature mark C3 in the bottom right hand corner. It’s almost like you’d want to fold the page back in order to see something below — but there just doesn’t seem any target which would make sense of this. This page does seem to be a listing of yardage cloth requirements — maybe you were meant to cut off the blank part of the page, or write your annotations here. I still don’t get it though. Let’s assume the introduction explains it all.

Freyle advises tailors to sit with their backs straight on a stool half a vara high, and to push needles outwards away from their nose and cheek! You are told how many yards (varas) of material you would need for each pattern, though presumably this would vary depending on the dimensions of your customer. Apparently sixteenth century Spain was the center of the European fashion trade and there was some disquiet among the world of haute couture espagnole that by publishing such books all their trading advantage might evaporate — which of course it ultimately did.

Before Ottmar Mergenthaler (1886) and Tolbert Lanston (1885) made their inventions enabling printers to create their own metal type, if a printer needed more type they’d send round to the nearest type foundry. Of course for many printers this went on for years after these machine setting innovations. Well into the twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw was among the conservative authors who insisted that mechanical typesetting machines like the Linotype and the Monotype should never be used for his books. He wanted everything set by hand. And this meant a trip (or several) to the type foundry to get hold of the types you needed.

If you buy a font (font in America, fount in Britain) of type how many “A”s or “B”s will you get?

Wikipedia informs us that “A font when bought new would often be sold as (for example in a Roman alphabet) 12pt 14A 34a, meaning that it would be a size 12-point font containing 14 uppercase ‘A’s, and 34 lowercase ‘a’s.” The number of the other letters followed from that in some regular proportion governed by the frequency of use of that character in the local language. You are after all buying an amount of metal, an alloy of lead, tin and antimony, so the numbers of each character will vary according to size and other features. Here is the Font Schemes Chart from Skyline Type Foundry in Prescott, Arizona. They tell you how to use it in the bottom right hand corner. (I don’t know how much, if any, variation there might be between the counts for different foundries.)

What this means is that (if they work from a chart using the same proportions) if you bought a font of 12 point Binny Old Style No.21E, 15A 32a, (shown below) from M & H type foundry in San Francisco, you’d be getting 32 of the lower case a; 13 of b; 17 of c; 19 of d; 43 of e (our commonest letter); 17 of f; 13 of g; 21 of h; 32 of I; 9 of j and k; 21 of l; 17 of m; 32 of n and o; 13 of p; 6 of q; 32 each of r, s, and t; 17 of u; 9 of v; 13 of w; 6 of x; 13 of y; and 6 of z. You can work out the punctuation marks that’d come along with the font.

This font might do you for surprisingly little. In fact you’d already need a second font before you’d finished setting the first eight lines of the page below from Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant by the author described on the title page of my possibly pirated American edition of 1904 as Bernard Shaw. (The book is of course not set in 12pt Binny Old Style, so all this pretended precision is just approximation.) This copy seems to be a reprint, as the publisher, Herbert S. Stone and Company of Chicago and New York audaciously claims “Copyright 1898” in their own name. Thus these considerations are irrelevant, as the book was no doubt set without the author’s involvement, using the Linotype machine. Had it been handset, the letter we would have run out of first was lower case “w”, but it matters not which one it was, off to the foundry for another font. Running low would also be “t”, of which you’d only have five left.

Obviously you’d need quite a lot of bits of type to print a book. In addition to the Roman we’ve looked at, you’d need Italic, and Small Caps, as well as larger sizes for display lines, running heads and folios. In the early days of printing a sheet of however many pages (4, or 8 most probably) would be printed and set aside while the type was broken up (distributed) and used for the setting of the next few pages. And so on and so on until done.

It’s well established that printing was well established in Korea long before the idea dawned in Europe. What’s not known, is whether the same thought processes that went on in seventh century Korea also happened later on in Europe independently, or whether some breathless messenger from the east ran into Mainz town square gasping “Look, look. Here’s a great idea . . .”

I dare say it’s Atlas Obscura‘s fault, but they present this story about research into early Korean printing under the headline “What Do We Really Know About the History of the Printing Press?” as if it was a search for influences on Gutenberg’s printing press of earlier Korean presses. That’s fine, and fun, but it is not the real question. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press: he took the already existing concept of a press and added to it the ability to generate a text page using movable, reusable, metal types. So whether he was influenced by Korean printing presses or local wine presses, or even local presses used to print woodcuts, is irrelevant. What’s interesting is where he got the idea that provoked him to create movable, interchangeable metal types.

A scan of SoMiGaSookJumGyoBuEum TongGamJulYo, a 15th-century Korean document, using the synchrotron. Photo: Mike Toth/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Scientists in California are using a synchrotron, a type of particle accelerator, to take fluorescence scans of some pages from a Korean book printed in 1377. Analyzing Korean printing pages from the 14th century may reveal evidence of the nature of the image used for printing, and such evidence might enable researchers to consider whether the traces came from metal, even movable metal types. But concluding that the pages reviewed were printed on a press would be a waste of time. Of course they were, as were lots of things around the world being printed thus then.

The mature Henry James wrote English as if he would have the word-order freedom of Latin without the help of declentional signposting which that language provides. You’ve got to keep on your toes, and retain in active memory all the units of his sentences, mentally juggling them into position, and one hopes sense, after reading the whole thing. Dealing with Henry James’ late style is like deciphering a chemical formula; it seems to aim at mimicking mathematical precision. It is therefore a bit of a surprise to catch him out in linguistic imprecision.

In the first chapter of The Ambassadors, talking about the eyes of Maria Gostrey, he delivers himself of this sentence: “Their possessor was in truth, it may be communicated, the mistress of a hundred cases or categories, receptacles of the mind, subdivisions for convenience, in which, from a full experience, she pigeon-holed her fellow mortals with a hand as free as that of a compositor scattering type.”

Under just what conditions a compositor might scatter type we aren’t informed, but I suspect that the master must have been thinking about distributing the type after printing. Here “scattering” doesn’t really come into it: distributing type off press demands that you return each individual character to its correct location in the type case so it can be reused for the next job. It’s a very deliberate process. If you have to put all the “p”s into this little box and all the “q”s into that one, there’s a lot more intentionality involved than the word “scattering” suggests. I suppose years of experience might have led to a certain freedom of hand action in the journeyman printer, based on “flow”, but unless “receptacles of the mind”, “subdivisions for convenience”, “pigeon-holed”, and of course “cases” forced our author into a typographical metaphor, he’d have been better off alluding to the freedom of hand motion of a sewer casting seed, a chef throwing raisins onto the the top of his pudding, or a navvy shoveling gravel*. Isn’t it also a little odd that such a precision-maniac wouldn’t have bothered to find out the correct word for distributing type?

OK, it doesn’t really matter; but if you set your hand to the wheel of precision, well, precision is kind of what’s expected.


* In Scotland we had the tradition that as they left the church the bride and groom would have a “scatter”. This involved throwing out lots of thruppenny bits, sixpenny bits, and shillings, which the local kids, who always knew to be there, would scramble for.

I’ve just been reading a couple of books by University Printers. The first is by Brooke Crutchley who was Printer to the University of Cambridge from 1946 to 1974. To be a printer, his memoir, was published in 1980. The second, Vivian Ridler’s Diary of a Master Printer: A year in the life of the Printer to the University, Oxford, has just been published. Ridler was University Printer at Oxford from 1958 till 1978.

Brooke Crutchley started out at the Press in 1930 as Assistant to the then Printer, Walter Lewis, a giant of Cambridge printing history. It was Lewis had who retained the services of Stanley Morison, the driver of the revolution in print quality in Britain, a revolution spearheaded in Cambridge and focussed on Monotype and letterpress. Much of the book is about these two heroes, Lewis and Morison. We actually get very little feel for what Crutchley’s job was like: at his interview Lewis told him he wanted an Assistant who knew nothing about printing. The young Brooke, a rather literary type while at university and at the time employed by The Yorkshire Post, fit the bill. Of course he learned quickly — it’s not rocket science after all — but was always more interested in the aesthetic than the business side of printing. We do learn about the introduction of an incentive payment scheme at the Press, which seems to have occurred smoothly and successfully according to its prime mover. Back then relations between labor and management were a good deal more aggressive than they are now, so this was a notable achievement, getting the local unions to admit that increased output might be a good thing, as long as the worker was directly remunerated.

The book, typeset and printed at the University Press of course, is a modest little demy octavo (5½” x 8½”) volume. It’s set in Bembo with no running heads and with the folios enclosed in parentheses centered at the foot. A clean straightforward design, the least successful feature of which is the decision to pick up of those horizontal parens featured on the jacket above and below the title. They become a bit too much when they reappear on the title page and in every chapter title — there are fourteen of them within the 187 pages of the text. The binding is sewn in a case made of a pale green Linson over boards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before, but this shade of Linson (a paper-based binding material) is fading with age and you can see a distinct paleness along the top of the case, which has been living peacefully on a bookshelf for the last forty years.

Thirty years later the Press would no doubt not have published a book of this type. The book was in fact published in Britain by The Bodley Head. The Cambridge University Press copy I have is only the US edition.

Nor would OUP publish such a volume: Mr Ridler’s book does not come from that source. Compared to Mr Crutchley’s book this one tells you much more about the job of running a print works, unsurprisingly since it is a diary of a year’s working life. There’s quite a bit of agonizing about computerization and film typesetting, which in Ridler’s case takes the form of sensible study proposals and tests — OUP already had a film setting operation in place — rather than Crutchley’s more handwringing reaction. Concern about the volume of work features largely: there were after all 900 employees to keep busy. A university printing house must always be in a strained relationship with the publishing wing: the printing house exists primarily to serve the publishing business but the publishing business is free to place work elsewhere, and forward loading is always a source of tension. (The year covered by the diary, 1970-1, was a particularly difficult year for publishers and thus book manufacturers.) Both men were toward the end of the line of a long list of Printers to the University, and status concerns were unavoidable. Bear in mind that the University originally had a printing business which, after a century or two, developed a publishing department, whereas now in everyone’s eye, they had a publishing business with a printing department attached.

The Printer, who started his working life as a designer, is often found worrying about the quality of the litho† illustrations printed for a Dante Gabriel Rossetti book. The Printer’s job involved visiting a surprising number of sick workers in hospital; and attending the funerals of not a few; signing indentures for many apprentices; and general morale boosting tours of the plant. And of course there were endless meetings of committees to study this that and the other — more of them industry-wide rather than local.

There are lots of visits to the theatre in Oxford, in London, in Stratford and elsewhere — the Ridlers were an artistic lot. The Diary contains many of walk-on appearances, by on one occasion a couple of my bosses from Cambridge. There are quite a few unbuttoned comments on personalities. Jack S., my boss from New York, is described, as “not very attractive” — though one wonders what that means, or amounts to. Sir Frank Lee, Chairman of the Cambridge Syndicate, is portrayed cocking his leg over the arm of his chair in Ridler’s office. Mr Ridler claims Dick David, Secretary to the Syndics, looked askance, but I suspect it’s only the more tightly-buttoned Oxonian who thought anything about such casual address. Indiscreetly‡ Mr Ridler provides the salaries of the top executives at OUP in 1970.

OUP and CUP were then, and remain, rather different from one another. In the early part of the twentieth century OUP’s London office had picked up the ball and run with it: they started publishing books on their own say-so. Under the guidance of Humphrey Milford OUP London fairly soon built up a publishing program which dwarfed that coming out of Oxford. The Oxford bit, referred to as the Clarendon Press, still got all its books accepted for publication by the Delegates (the Oxford equivalent of Cambridge’s Syndicate, a committee of academics appointed by the University to run the Press) and most of the OUP academic publishing came through the Clarendon Press. Cambridge never relaxed this Syndical control. Oxford’s London office output contained most of what the general book-reading public would come to regard as Oxford’s publishing: The Oxford Book of This and That, The Oxford Companion to Whatever, a serious poetry list, and series like The World’s Classics. The London office went on to establish offices around the world which were enabled themselves to publish books without reference to Oxford. To some this might seem a risky policy, but it worked out brilliantly, mainly I suppose because the people hired were able to find success while maintaining discipline. Soon non-Clarendon sales represented the vast majority of Oxford’s revenue. As a consequence OUP grew to be much bigger than CUP, which may partly have motivated the febrile and somewhat desperate efforts around the 450th anniversary of CUP’s royal charter to “prove” that Cambridge was the oldest continuously-operating Press in the world — and obviously the best.

Mr Ridler’s book is published under the imprint of the Perpetua Press which is a revival of a private press which Ridler and his friend David Bland had established before World War II. It is effectively published privately by its editor, Colin Ridler, son of the author. They’ve gone all out to create a handsome volume. Printed in two colors (excessive to my mind to have running head and folios (at the foot) printed throughout in a second color, red), they’ve used a nice paper, tricked the book out with a ribbon marker, and sewn it and casebound it in a red paper-based material over substantial boards, with printed endpapers showing original handwritten pages from the diary. The book was printed in Wales by Gomer Press of Llandysul in Ceredigion. Its trim size is 6⅛” x 9¼”, an unusual size for UK book printing: a US standard. The publishers have added two eight-page inserts of plates, one spread printed in four colors, and topped the book off with nice head (and tail) bands. The jacket is a dark blue contrast.

The typesetting would have raised eyebrows at the University Press (like Cambridge’s, Oxford University’s printing history ended a few years ago). We readers have become used to more than a word space following a period or comma and getting rid of that extra space doesn’t help any. Space before an opening quote is kind of important too. And Mr Ridler would never have allowed a heading to fall at the foot of a verso page to be followed by the consequent text at the top of the next page. Conventions in typesetting exist for good strong comprehension reasons, and designers shouldn’t be encouraged to mess around with them. The book’s imprint page tells us it’s set in Caslon and Gill Sans. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time searching for a single character in sans serif type, I’ve failed to find one. Editorial issues include the decision to refer to people by initials although no listing of initials is provided. Obviously Ridler had no problem recognizing RR as his deputy, but the reader often struggles with characters who appear less frequently.

This is an oddly fascinating book which makes you rather envious of the job holder. Most of the work of the University Printer was relatively undemanding and rather pleasant, though he had to be constantly ready to make some hugely consequential decisions. Having written the piece, the only year he wrote a work diary, Mr Ridler did nothing with it. Luckily his sons Colin and Ben have now brought it out. Thanks to Gordon Johnson for bringing it to my attention.


* Odd that such august educational institutions would describe themselves in dog Latin. Oxoniensis, Cantabrigiensis — it’s all a bit pathetic. What happened to the ford the oxen used, and wasn’t there a Latin word for bridge that I was taught when I was nine?

Well of course that’s not the way it came about. Cantabrigiensis is a Medieval Latin coinage based on the Old English name for the town, Grantebrycge (Granta bridge). We just have to accept that the Gr migrated to C at some point before its Latinification — I suppose you can just about imagine that happening in an oral context. At some point the River Granta was renamed Cam, at least from Cambridge on downstream, though it still retains the name Granta for its upper reaches — think of Grantchester after all. It’s not the Roman name for the place: it’s later Latin. When the Romans had a fort on top of Castle Hill they named it Duroliponte — obviously the bridge was already there.

So Cantab has nothing to do with Canterbury. Maybe we should take it as a kind of insider joke based on the local knowledge that Granta = Cam.


† Oxford University Press had used lithography since the days when that implied using stones. Cambridge on the other hand was able to demonstrate the utter uselessness of lithography in the early 1970s by getting in a machine for a try-out and printing on it wantonly awful work, thus proving that letterpress would never die. OUP also had a collotype department — which was closed in 1968. And a paper mill. A bigger business altogether.


‡ Perhaps not that indiscreetly. In those days information about colleagues’ salaries was much more casually exchanged than nowadays. Indeed at dinner parties nobody would bat an eye at being asked by a relative stranger how much they earned, or how much they’d paid for their house. The information Ridler provides is entirely congruent with what I always say was the top level of pay in Cambridge when I was working there. That top level was only three to four times more than the bottom.

It is hard to avoid assuming that early printers had the same concern for accuracy as a modern book printer does and that this meant that the switchover from script to print suddenly ushered in a new era of accuracy. We often casually assert that once Gutenberg had invented movable metal types it was possible to record texts with an accuracy as was never achieved by scribes. This is just plain wrong though: on two sides. Firstly scribes did make mistakes, omitting a word here, spelling one wrong there, even leaving out a line of copy from time to time, but book dealers were alive to the problem, and spent quite a lot of effort trying to ensure that copies were all the same. So it’s true that inaccuracies abounded, but people were constantly trying to improve texts or at least not to make them any more degraded. Secondly we overlook the fact that early printers themselves made lots of mistakes. Many did so despite their best efforts, while others were happy to produce slapdash work as long as it made money.

It is almost inevitable that the first printers would struggle to achieve accuracy. If a sheet of 16 pages were being printed the first task would be to cast type. Once you had the bits of type you needed you could start to compose it: combine it into words, lines and pages. (Setting the type for Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible is estimated only to have started two or three years after the cutting of the types and their casting had begun! Cutting moulds probably started in 1449 or 1450, composing in 1452, and the printing probably wasn’t completed till 1455.) Most 15th century printers wouldn’t have had anything describable as a proofing press, so in order to pull a proof they’d put the forme of type onto the press and pull a couple of copies. Leaving the press set up but not in operation was hopelessly uneconomic, so such proofreading as was done would be done quickly. Any corrections called for would be made to the forme while it was on press — it’d be unlocked and a new bit of type inserted quickly (and of course occasionally wrongly).

(Still from “Inspired by Typography” video)

Then the run would continue. Because paper was rather expensive, the printer would not discard the early sheets run off before corrections, so that the pile of copies of the first sheet would contain some copies from the first (uncorrected) state, as well as copies from the second state and even from a third or fourth state. When the desired quantity had been run the type would be distributed and used for setting the next eight pages, which would go through the same sort of correction cycle(s). When the job was finished and it came to binding you might end up with one section from the first state, another from the second, and two from the third — they’d all be mixed up, so that some pages would be corrected while others were from the first uncorrected run with different mixtures on front and back. So, contrary to what we would like to believe, early printed books would not all be identical — they’d be bewilderingly different. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns eighty copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio — no two copies are identical!

It took centuries for printers to work out the routines which we now take for granted which enabled them to (almost) guarantee accurate reproduction of texts. This didn’t really start to be true till the 17th and 18th centuries. When we look back we cannot imagine a situation where proofing routines weren’t firmly established — it’s our imagination that’s at fault.

Now although this error-proneness was a quality shared with manuscripts, the printed version did have one huge advantage. There were multiple copies, so, even if there might be mistakes these were less significant than the fact that many people actually got to see the books, whereas in the past getting to see a manuscript was not an everyday experience. For example, as Elizabeth Eisenstein: tells us in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (pp. 580-1), Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born twenty years after Gutenberg had started composing his Bible, “as a student at Cracow in the 1480s . . . probably found it hard to get a look at a single copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest — even in a corrupted medieval Latin form. Before he died, he had three different editions at hand.”

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life and Particularly Showing the Distresses that may Attend the Misconduct both of Parents and Children in Relation to Marriage (Letter 261, about ⅔ of the way through)

At Ambient Literature Ian Gadd gives us a piece on The Printer’s Eye which examines Richardson’s innovative typesetting. He also shows the ebook version of such typographical play: about which one can say is at least a brave effort. His piece includes the invaluable information that because Penguin’s edition is such an immensity of oversize production, Ryanair once tried to prevent a student from taking the book onto one of their flights because they considered it to be a piece of hand baggage.

This part of Clarissa, designed to indicate Clarissa’s distress upon her “betrayal”, as well as being disjointedly written, is a sort of content mash-up of various quotations. It is contained as Paper X, an enclosure in Letter 261. Supposedly these “Papers” represent transcriptions of discarded scraps of paper torn up and thrown away by the distraught Clarissa. Paper X starts with four lines from Thomas Otway, Venice Preserved (Act 4, scene 2). Ms Harlowe’s quotations continue as follows

  • Lead me: Otway: Venice Preserved IV
  • Death only: Dryden & Lee Oedipus III
  • Oh! You have: Shakespeare Hamlet III
  • Then down: Cowley The Mistress
  • Oh my Miss Howe! The pangs: Otway Venice Preserved IV
  • When honours lost: Garth The Dispensary
  • I could a Tale: Shakespeare Hamlet I
  • For life can: Dryden Absalom and Architaphel

“By swift misfortunes”, vertically at the bottom left, appears to be Miss Harlowe herself. Why in her distress does she break into verse? Mr Lovelace, her suitor/rapist, is worried about her survival, and sees it as a good sign that she’s able to remember and quote all this verse so well! The conceit of course is of her writing at random in any open space on the paper, almost like a crossed letter.

In an offset world we might think it not altogether complicated to achieve a disrupted lineation like this: paste-up makes it a relative breeze. But in hot metal it would be quite an effort. Remember that all white space had to be established by bits of metal of less than type height so that the actual type could be held firm and in position to pick up the ink. Upside-down diagonal lines like the “I could a Tale tell” from Hamlet, would involve custom-cut metal (or maybe wood) all around, because most such spacer pieces were line-based thus strictly rectangular. See some big (shiny and linear) spaces here:

The classic instance of this sort of typographical frivolity is of course Tristram Shandy. Full of digressions it also displays typographical quirks — dashes of varying length, upto a full line, line diagrams showing narrative structure, an entire chapter which has been ripped out, blank pages, and famously a pair of marbled pages, which nowadays just get printed in black. In the first edition these marbled pages were different in every copy: they were genuinely marbled, and were tipped in after having the page numbers stamped on.

I guess a computer is really more complicated than a Linotype machine, but it’s all inside that black box. It’s like magic: you don’t see any action. With the heavy metal machinery we used to use to make things, you’d see (and hear, and smell, and feel) lots of stuff happening. It is just amazing to get great chunks of metal, working at high temperatures and relatively high speeds, click-clacking and bang-thumping away, and despite their heavy steel structure, creating precise little things regularly, repeatedly, and reliably. Designing a machine with almost ten thousand moving parts is amazing enough: getting it to work every morning at the hands of a wage-earner, and getting it to keep on working for years and years requires dedication and love. No wonder the compositors were the aristocracy of labor.

The Museum of Printing has a series of ten videos about the Linotype machine. These are for the enthusiast — fourteen minutes on lubricating an obsolete machine is not everyone’s choice of pastime — but if you need to know, here is Linotype Legacy. If you just watch one, try the first which shows you what you’d have to do every morning to get the machine ready to go.

See also Linotype.

Almost looks like his hat’s made of type metal

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz some time between 1394 and 1404. In the 1890s the city of Mainz declared his official birthdate to be 24 June, 1400.

He didn’t invent printing. He didn’t invent the printing press. The closest thing to an invention that Johannes Gutenberg made was movable metal type: but even that had precedent in Asian printing, about which Gutenberg was however presumably ignorant. His father was a goldsmith and coin maker, and there are parallels between metal working and hot metal printing which seem to have worked on the mind of the youth. Obviously metal working led to a facility with the use of metals, including engraving copper plates. Casting coins and medals in moulds, and obviously the techniques involved in cutting the moulds themselves were essential skills in hot metal type manufacture. Presses were already known by then, used for printing wood blocks, but mainly evolved from wooden wine presses.

What Gutenberg really was was a businessman who saw an opportunity to develop some pre-existing technologies, and pushed hard, putting his money (and others’) where his mouth was. He seems to have been quite willing to take a flutter: one instance is the abortive pilgrimage to Aachen on 1439. Gutenberg manufactured thousands of little mirrors which were advertised as having the power to gather in divine rays. These were to be sold to souvenir-happy pilgrims. His inventory became useless when the plague (or maybe it was floods) caused to cancellation of Aachen’s ceremonies.

Between 1448 and 1450 Gutenberg established a printing operation in Mainz. Investors included Arnold Geldhus, his brother-in-law, as well as Johann Fust and his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer. Fust invested 800 gulden to get the operation going, and then put in a further 800 gulden to fund the printing of the Bible which started in 1452. Prior to the Bible project they were printing indulgences and Latin grammars. The first work surviving from the press is a German poem.

The BBC programme, The Forum, gives a straightforward introduction to Gutenberg’s entrepreneurial initiative. This programme dates from November 2020, and breaks in the middle for a news update, which, rather eerily, turns out to be the news from back then (2020, not 1452).