Archives for category: Typesetting

James Gray Bookseller shows us the earliest book printed in Irish type. It was printed in 1677 by Propaganda Fide in Rome. (Link via SHARP listserv.)

Irish type, often referred to as Gaelic type, developed out of the uncial script used in the writing of manuscripts in Ireland. The first Gaelic typeface was designed in 1571 for a catechism which was intended for Anglican missionary work among Irish Catholic population. The typeface, available today in lots of different designs, continued in use till the mid-twentieth century but is now used only for things like ads and newspaper titles, rather like English Black Letter. According to Wikipedia its use in Scotland came to an end in the mid-eighteenth century.

Plagiarism Today told us in 2015 that we cannot copyright the alphabet or a typeface. We can however copyright computer code, and for any digital typeface there is of course an underlying computer code which enables the design to be expressed. This sounds back-to-front, but of course so does lots of stuff regarding copyright and computers since our law largely predates the computer’s domination of our world.

Now Plagiarism Today brings us an account of a lawsuit brought by type designer Nancy Laatz attempting to secure protection against unauthorized and unpaid-for use of three typefaces, Blooming Elegant Regular, Blooming Elegant Sans, and Blooming Elegant Hand, by Zazzle a site enabling users to design and sell a variety of products including cards, invitations, T shirts, mugs and more. Well, you can see how Blooming Elegant‘d be popular for this sort of thing:

Zazzle, who can only point to a single-user license for $20 acquired by someone who worked for them, is arguing that regardless of whether the code is protectable or not, they believe that Laatz likely used a font-design program that automatically generated the code. Because of this they argue, the software doesn’t qualify for copyright protection. They have in the meantime withdrawn the typefaces.

Plagiarism Today is excited about the implications of this case for the world of AI. OK. “The underlying creative work doesn’t enjoy copyright protection. That means, for a typographer to have any practical copyright protection, the code must be protectable. However, most typographers aren’t programmers, so, they rely on tools to generate or help generate that code.” Bated breath — just wait for the resolution of this exciting saga . . . Though I kind of suspect it’ll all end in a financial settlement rather than a Supreme Court judgement.

I think part of the problem with lots of analysis of copyright matters is the lazy use of the term intellectual property. Yes, George Orwell’s 1984 is in copyright, and yes, Orwell’s 1984 is intellectual property. But you cannot complete the syllogism and conclude that intellectual property is copyrightable. Some of it is: the form in which the ideas in 1984 are expressed is copyrightable — the ideas themselves (though they are obviously intellectual property) are NOT copyrightable. You can write as many novels as you like featuring a Big Brother (maybe you’d better choose a different name though) who’s watching over us, and they’ll all be copyrightable as long as they don’t just copy George Orwell’s words (or anyone else’s). I rather think that typeface designs are intellectual property, but ought not to be protectable by copyright. Trademarks, patents maybe but not copyright, unless we change copyright to create a new version for this sort of item. Do we open the road up to massive truck loads of intellectual property protection when we allow that the computer code behind a typeface is copyrightable? I suppose it does get by in that computer languages are languages in more that just a metaphorical sense. Still so much today is being expressed in computer code that there might be a risk that by allowing protection to all we end up protecting none.

We (Congress) really do need to sort all this out. Copyright reform is overdue. A few years ago I suggested that copyright might need to be split into three, or four, different strands. Still seems right to me; righter all the time.

Seems a bit of a storm in a teacup, though we know from bitter experience that it’s often the smallest issues that are most hotly debated. Thus the State Department’s decision to change its official typeface from Times New Roman to Calibri has been causing controversy. Mashable brings the story.

The justification is officially that Calibri is easier to read on a computer screen, and especially for the partially sighted, than is Times New Roman and that allegedly Calibri works better with OCR. There is a vanishingly small amount of research on readability, at all, and assertions that this or that typeface is more or less readable are usually based on little more than font-familiarity and personal prejudice. That sans is more readable than serifed type is “backed up” (by Mashable, not the State Department, I think) by a research paper which starts out “Texts are a collection of letters and words which are printed or displayed in a particular style and size.” This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but I suppose you do have to define your terms when you’re writing an academic paper.

Another bit of research they cite comes down wobblily on the side of sans as being more readable than serif type, although “Traditionally, serif fonts have been considered easier to read than sans serif fonts, but prior empirical evidence is scarce and inconclusive.” Sorry, but the research on which this paper is based also seems to me “scarce and inconclusive”. What the research actually shows is that 14pt Lucida Sans was adjudged by twenty students to be marginally more “readable” on a collection of 320 words than 14pt Lucida Bright (a serif font). “The present data demonstrate that serifs do not facilitate the process of visual-word identification; instead, the presence of serifs may (if anything) hinder lexical access.”

The case seems utterly unarguable to me: a serif type is less ambiguous than a sans serif font. One bit of text that’ll cause difficulty in Calibri and other sans serif fonts (like the one used in this blog, whose identity I’m not utterly sure about) is “Ill”. I bang up against the indistinguishability of Cap eye and lower case ell whenever I go on about Artificial Intelligence — looks like I’m talking about my chum big Al. This feature of many sans serif faces is an open invitation to OCR to get ahold of the wrong end of the stick. In your serif/sans serif research project you could of course “control” for this problem by excluding words which include this combination of characters. Maybe the State Department uses “sick” instead of “ill”, and has standing orders to spell out Artificial Intelligence whenever it’s referred to. Hope so. At least in Calibri the number 1 has serifs to distinguish 1 from I and l.

But of course, who really cares what typeface the Department of State uses? Even the reasons for the choice are hard to get too worked up about. I suppose it does make sense that everyone in the organization should use the same format, though I have always rather wondered why. The most significant finding in the paper may be the admission that “the default font in Microsoft Word is no longer a serif font (Times New Roman) but a sans serif font (Calibri).”

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt jump on this as showing an undue influence of the tech industry on our international diplomacy.

Michele Santelia now holds the important Guinness world record for typing books in reverse. Mr Santelia, an Italian accountant from Campobasso, cites Leonardo da Vinci as the inspiration behind his decision to pursue mirror typing. “It is to his enlightened mind that I, with great humility, attempt to compare [myself] in order to try to understand his mysteries, his secrets and ancient virtues!” Mr Santelia types his books backwards, in their original languages, using four blank keyboards simultaneously, which to me seems the rather more impressive aspect of his hobby. (You can see a photo of his keyboard set-up at the link above. He assigns values to each key before starting.) The Guinness World Records site assures us that Mr Santelia never looks up at the screen to double check his work. It is not disclosed whether there’s also a neighboring reverse proof reader who’s checking to see there are no typos and omissions, or do I mean snoissimo dna sopyt?

After typing each book, Mr Santelia prints an enlarged version of the text onto large pages, which are then bound in a leather cover. Guinness tell us: “Over the years, Michele has gifted several of his books to prominent public figures, such as former US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama; Popes Johannes Paul II and Benedict XVI; and former Italian presidents Carlo Ciampi and Giorgio Napolitano. Michele’s latest book, Das Nibelungenlied Backwards, a medieval German heroic epic, was typed in 2022. Michele dedicated it to ‘the disabled people of the whole world; to all those who suffer daily in a bigoted and clumsy society.’”

Here the proud tsipyt is shown with one of his volumes — no wonder he has to give them away — eighty-one would fill any house.

LitHub brings us the story of Mr Santelia’s back-to-front achievement. Thanks to Nate Hoffelder for the link.

I am forced to wonder whether Guinness should perhaps reflect that every Monotype keyboard operator’s no doubt able to knock off eighty-one books every month or so; — the Monotype keyboard yields a punched tape which contains the text of a book in reverse — though the operator does get to go forwards.

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.

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.

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.

The word pixel is a contraction of “picture element”. Apparently it replaced the earlier “pel”, perhaps understandably. It describes the way a picture is rendered on your computer screen — with enough magnification you’d see the dots — without it you’re looking at a picture made up of lots of tiny invisible separate bits. I always think of pixels as the work of pixies who have magically brought me this picture over the ether. The system is analogous to, but different from, the halftone dot process we use in printing to achieve the same effect.

The size of each dot is defined by the resolution setting of your screen. Whatis will give you the details. Aeon‘s story, (sent by Jeremy Mynott) gives you the science behind pixels, and tells us that pixels are really just a point with no dimension: not a dot, not a little box, just a location defined by computer code. What we see are in fact pixel spreaders in action, perhaps a distinction which the non-specialist can disregard though!

However tempting the analogies, we have to keep in mind that computer (and LED television) screens and halftone screens are different. Computer screens use additive color while printing on paper uses subtractive color: a computer screen with no colors will be black: a sheet of paper with no color is white. (Knowledge of this distinction, I always feel, should help in remembering which is subtractive and which additive, but I can’t say that I find that it really does.) Computer screens form their pixels from RGB colors (red, green, blue), while printed color images employ dots of CMYK, (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to render the scene. In a halftone CMYK image each dot is just one of the four colors: their combination creates the illusion of a colored original. On the computer screen each pixel contains a defined amount of red, green and blue, creating the color in itself, and with its neighbor providing the shading and color variation in the image.

The dots on a printed page should not be referred to as pixels, nor now we are more familiar with them do we spend as much time worrying about them as we used to. Dots per inch (DPI) is a term we used to bandy about. Dots per inch sounds like it’s telling you something. The knowledge never seemed to do us much good though when it came to looking at typesetting output. It’s really just a measure of the fineness of the screen* on a halftone.


* At the most basic level the word screen is being used differently when we talk about computers and televisions as opposed to books or other printed images. A screen used to create a halftone for printing can be thought of as something like a metal sieve, or the wire mesh screens you have on your windows to keep out bugs. Hold this up in front of a picture and take a photograph through it and it’ll appear as a series of little separate dots. Using color filters you can get one for only yellow bits, one for only red, one for only blue, and one for black. Slightly rotating each one you can create the illusion of a color picture.

I was wondering recently about the rule governing the use of the long s, because early printers didn’t always use ſ: the instance I was looking at was the running head in an early printing of Richardson’s Clarissa, the one with annotations by Lady Bradshaigh.* There our heroine is referred to as Miſs Clariſſa Harlowe, the Miss in italic, the rest in Roman. How come she gets two ſs in one case but not in the other?

Grammarly has a History of the Long S, which tells us that the long s (like an italic f without the cross bar — though in the Roman form it gets a sort of half bar) goes back to everyday Roman cursive writing. After a while under normal medieval usage it became the way to write lower case s. “If you’re wondering what the s we know and use today was doing during that time, don’t worry, it was there. It’s just that it was used as the uppercase S, mostly, up until the eleventh or twelfth century. Around that time, the long s started to be used when the letter appeared at the beginning or in the middle of a word, and by the fifteenth century, this practice seemed to become established. So the word ‘sound’ would have been written as ‘ſound,’ and the word ‘rest’ would have been written as ‘reſt.’ The short s (also known as the round s) was used at the end of a word, or after a long s which appeared in the middle of a word. That’s why the word ‘processes’ would have been written like this: ‘proceſses’.” That rule, while nicely straightforward, doesn’t unfortunately answer my Clariſſa case. Does that make it a typo, or was the rule just not fully settled down by 1748? Maybe neither: Wikipedia suggests that the “rule” was that one or both esses could be long, or not. Seems almost like no rule. It probably boils down to differences in house styles.  Oddly, where a word was hyphenated after an ess, ſ was apparently required.

No doubt all American readers are aware that in The Bill of Rights Congress is referred to as Congreſs. Perhaps the first encounter we have with a long ſ may cause us to pause and think, but thereafter we smoothly read these things as esses and pass on unconsciously. (See the lines following the running head in the picture of Richardson’s printing of Clarissa, above. Yes, Samuel Richardson was a printer. Should we imagine the book’s being so long as a dodge to keep the presses running?) In any case it all began to go away late in the eighteenth century when they stopped designing an ſ for modern typefaces. If it’s ever used nowadays, it’s done in order to create an antique atmosphere.

See also Long S, in which I show an example of my personal foray into long ess territory. Errata shows a French combo longs/round s character just like the German esszett, ß.


* Lady Bradshaigh wrote many letters to Richardson, initially proposing that virtue should be rewarded and Miss Harlowe should not be forced to die, and continuing with discussions about the plotting of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson’s last novel. As these books were initially published in parts, there was lots of room for a persuasive reader to affect the outcome of things. Richardson valued Lady Bradshaigh’s comments: their correspondence (and that with her sister Lady Echlin) is contained in the 1200 pp. three-volume Cambridge University Press publication, The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson with Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, 2016. A review by Clare Bucknell may be found at The London Review of Books.