Archives for category: Typesetting

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.

The note at the end of this subject index from this 1690 medical volume, Les remèdes choisis de l’herboriste d’Attigna by Antoine Golletti doesn’t waste time in apologies.

Quelques fautes” “Some errors” they tell us “have happened during printing, which is not at all unusual, but as they aren’t very important, we have thought that a reader, however little wit he might possess, would not be bothered by them, which reasonably dispenses with the need for us to indicate them here.”

This erratum notice comes from a tweet by Bruce McKittrick Rare Books. The book was printed in Lyons, chez Mathieu Desmares, in the rue des quatre chapeaux, at the sign of the golden anchor. Well done Mr Desmares — treat ’em rough.

Interesting to see that what we think of as the German sz, ß, was used in France to indicate the combination long s + short s. See the start of the second last line. Here’s a detail which gets rid of the red library stamp.

See also Erratum slips.

Does the discovery of a “Wicked Bible” in New Zealand justify a post? The Guardian report describes the situation.

The so-called “Wicked Bible” was printed in 1631 and contains everyone’s favorite Biblical typo: the omission of “not” in the seventh commandment. The printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, were summoned by King Charles I and admonished for sloppy workmanship. Their printing licence was rescinded, and they were fined £300, though the fine was never paid. One thousand copies had been printed, but most of them were destroyed, leaving only about twenty survivors. Wikipedia lists the location of most of these. The existence of a second error, leading to Deuteronomy V,24 reading “Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse” may be no more than wishful thinking, though of course errors could and would be corrected during the run. Though the good old British word “arse” was well established at the time, its American variant, “ass” didn’t come up till, well, America did.

Proofreading a huge work like the Bible is a royal pain. Any illusion that the divine author will use his good offices to guide the hand of the typesetter is of course no more than that, an illusion. Indeed I suppose one could argue that typos might be more frequent than usual in setting biblical matter because, at least in parts, the compositor will be dealing with familiar words and may be more inclined to allow his mind to slip into free-wheel mode while composing such familiar copy.

The Guardian (appropriately for fans of Private Eye) has a piece on the ten worst typos in the Bible, which naturally includes this one.

George R. R. Martin was born George Raymond Martin in 1948. According to Wikipedia, when he was 13 he adopted the additional name Richard upon his confirmation — though I prefer to suspect it was because he’d just read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whatever, let it be quietly said that A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot better than Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon teacher in Oxford where he’d hang out with a group of kindred spirits, who rather preciously called themselves the Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams J. A. W. Bennett, Owen Barfield, Neville Coghill, Richard Lancelyn Green and others. One cringes at the thought of what the conversation over a pint must have been like — as they apparently met in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen pints may not have been in question; it was probably amontillado.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was such a success that it was followed up by what on the face of it looks like a pretty non-commercial novel. Three volumes! Volumes 1 and 2 were first published in 1954, Volume 3 in 1955. My copies, the original George Allen and Unwin set, had suffered some water damage — just a general dampening resulting in a musty smell — no doubt as a result of being stored, like King Arthur’s Knights, for some time in a barn in deepest Somerset. A couple of years in the apparently book-friendly aridity of a New York apartment seem to have cured the problem.

The books were published before the dawn of the ISBN, though of course they have them now! There’s only a discursive copyright notice, but as you can read this was during the reign of the Berne Convention which was a bit less prescriptive than the Universal Copyright Convention when it comes to the © symbol. Included also is information about the printer, and this is required by copyright law in Britain, so that the printer may easily be sued for libel and obscenity along with publisher, author, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Thus we learn that the books were set in 10/11 Imprint at Jarrolds in Norwich.

The 11 point Imprint is serviceable without being beautiful — an altogether appropriate state for this job: typesetting should never draw attention to itself. And you can’t find much to criticize in the setting of the books. However I’d say the way this chapter title turnover was handled was an indication that the comp wasn’t paying much attention, though it’s probably more that Jarrolds’ house style didn’t rise to the level of caring overmuch about aesthetics. The comp has just keyed in the chapter title (nicely letterspaced it’s true) and when there was no more room in the measure, turned over to the next line, which to my eye makes COMPANY look a little lonely. (At least it wasn’t hyphenated CO-MPANY!)

A caring typesetter would have thought a) about aesthetics and b) about sense units, and would, I believe, have broken the line as I show in this chopped up copy.

To my eye this looks 100% better, although I did leave too little space between grey and company — I’m not as good at paste-up as I used to have to be. But of course stuff like this only triggers the most extreme typographical manias, and obviously had no effect on the sale!

Volume 2 has a quirky flaw which I’ve never encountered before. The middle two leaves of signature 8 have been missed in sewing and remain quite tightly held in the closed book but are easily removable as soon as you do anything as violent as turning the page. For this to have happened the sewing operative must have picked up the sig opening it at the wrong point rather than at the targeted center of the 32 page section. I suppose this must tell us something about the imposition scheme (folding pattern) as in order for the location of the center of the sig to be mistaken like this there would have to be no bolts at head or foot.

Eerily this loose 4-pager falls exactly at the middle of the entire 3-volume work — structurally not page count-wise. Each volume contains two books, and here you can see we are at the transition point from the first book of Volume 2 to the second, i.e. from the third of six to the fourth. I’m wondering whether I should take steps to ensure that this four-pager doesn’t fall out and get lost. All I can think to do is pass a thread down the spine hollow and bring it up in the middle of this fragment and knot it. Of course this loose pair of leaves has made it through more than half a century, so maybe I should just leave it alone, and trust to the good sense of my heirs and assigns.

For a novel this was a pretty lavish affair. There’s a tip-in 2-color map in the first volume, and in each of the three volumes, a folded map, also two-color, tipped to the front of the back fly leaf. The maps are folded and tipped in so that enthusiasts can read the book with the map open before them. The books are Medium Octavo, 5⅝” x 8¾” printed on a cream sheet with decent formation and reasonable opacity. They are bound in red cloth (not the red leather of the fictitious original by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of which this presents itself as a sort of translation) with a red top stain, but no headbands — always rarer in Britain than in America. The jackets are printed by letterpress in three colors (black, red and “gold”) on a grey stock. The books include a few special sorts, and feature extracts in Elvish and other “Middle Earth” tongues — all of course made up by the author and his Inkling friends. There is even a series of appendices at the end of volume three treating with straight face such things as the “history” of royal families, chronologies, family trees, calendars, and languages — all of them fictitious although treated here as if in an academic monograph. Don humor!

With all these complexities the books were priced at 25 shillings each when I bought them in 1966, so the whole thing would set you back £3.15.0. The first volume is in its fifteenth printing, whereas volumes two and three are in their eleventh printings. All a huge success — as well as a reminder that many people will read volume one without ever going on to two and three.

Later: Today’s Shelf Awareness brings us the news that Bradley Hall has issued a three-hour “metal” musical version of The Fellowship of the Ring. You can find links to the work at MentalFloss. It all starts with a plea to right holders to be gentle with this adaptation. Mr Hall works from the movie version, and swears he will not give the same treatment to The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

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.