Archives for category: Typesetting

Nice of Tottenham Hotspur to offer to personalize a shirt for me, but I’d prefer a bit more letterspacing before I’d consider plonking down my £80.

In an ideal world Caps would always be letterspaced — have a little extra space added between the letters, varying depending on the fit of the characters to make the line look even in its “color”. Just look at that IC. You need quite a bit of space between these two to prevent it looking like they are crashing together. Clearly the Ls create their own space, and the counter of the C makes it look OK next to the K. I’d probably want a little letterspacing between the O and the first L, and a bit more between the H and the O. I’m sure this isn’t an option at the Spurs shop — besides I wouldn’t have the side to append my name to Harry Kane’s number.

In hot metal setting, Monotype or hand setting especially, where each letter is a separate piece of metal, letterspacing seems to me to be easy to understand. You just stick a little bit of metal in between the characters so that that H is faced a lilt distance away from the O following. Remember that in order to print a page of metal types every line has to be exactly the same length so that the type can be locked up in a forme so as not to move under the pressure of the press, and this means calculation has constantly to be made. Add space here, take it out there, or break a word, hyphenate it and once more adjust the space. Letterspacing is usually 1/9 of an em, but adjustments can be made by the compositor. Here from Hugh Williamson’s Methods of Book Design is a description of the universe of available spaces: “The set of fixed spaces in metal is related to that of the em of the fount. A hair-space is 1/6 em or a fraction over 16 percent: a thin, 1/5 or 20 percent; a middle or mid, ¼ or 25 percent; a thick, ⅓ or just over 33 percent; and an en or nut, ½ or 50 percent. The em itself, 100 percent, is often called a mutton in conversation, to distinguish it from the en. In most composition, the space between words should not be narrower than thin or wider than nut, and the thick space should be wide enough for the majority of lines.” So for letterspacing that shirt, you might reach for a mixture of hair, thin, and maybe even a mid for that IC crash leaving the 1/9 space between the two Ls and the C and K.

Via Twitter Erik Kwakkel sends these pictures together with the information that before anyone thought of creating a title page at the front of the book, they would give the “publication” details in a colophon at the back. This practice was taken over from the manuscript tradition.

Illustrated is a Bible Commentary which, according to Professor Kwakkel, was printed in Nuremberg in 1487. Printer’s errors seem to have a long and noble tradition: isn’t there a typo in the date? Or is this actually a manuscript created in 1387? Hard to tell without seeing it up close. I couldn’t track it down at the University of Leiden’s library using the call number quoted, Groenh. 014. The rubrication would be done by hand even if the black was printed.

The European Book in the Twelfth Century, edited by Professor Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.


Drop initials always look nice. Well, I like the look at least. Magazine Designing tells us “Drop caps and initials are an effective way of grabbing readers attention because they add personality and visual strength to the page.” To me, they have a sort of old fashioned, quality appearance. We can see an origin in those illuminated and historiated initials in manuscripts.

The Missal of Cardinal Angelo Acciaiuoli. Fitzwilliam Museum


Magazine Designing also tells us that drops dropped out of favor in the early 20th century under the influence of Bauhaus typographical rigor. That may have had something to do with it, but I’d bet that the main reason was economics. Drop initials add cost, and as labor costs went up publishers found themselves less and less willing to pay for “frills” like decent paper, generous margins, good book cloth, footnotes, drop initials etc.. Therefore if you are going to pay for drop initials you probably ought to do them right. Here’s The New Yorker doing it wrong:

Took me a moment or two to figure out that “live” isn’t being used here as an adjective. Here’s Hart’s Rules showing us how it ought to be done.

As you may see, Hart (the Bible of Oxford bookmaking) also disagrees with The New Yorker‘s handling of the open quotation mark.

I would also argue that good book composition manners demand that the rest of the word be set in letterspaced small caps or at least caps. That alone would have helped a little in the “live” confusion.

Adding negative space in hot metal days used to involve getting a saw and cutting out part of the type to allow the rest of the word to tuck in next to the top of the “A”. In modern computer setting it’s much easier — you just have to have your system programmed to apply a rule which you need to define in code. But “Hey — it’s not worth the (tiny) hassle — nobody’ll notice.”



Tables are usually taken for granted. (In this grant we can include those bits of wood on which we rest our books while examining tables within them.) The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first example of the use of the word in the sense of “a systematic arrangement of words, numbers, symbols etc.” the 11th century (Old) English of Byrhtferð: “Þæra geara getæl hæfð seo tabule þe we amearkian willað”. So the table has been around for a long time. However the scribes may have dealt with tabular material*, it has long been a topic of debate for book compositors, and each printing house would establish house rules for the layout of tables, all with the aim of making the information contained therein as clear and accessible as possible.

Naturally Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have evolved different ways of dealing with the same material. One occasionally imagines them saying “So they do it that way over there. OK, we’ll do it this way here.” The main difference comes down to the head and foot rules where Oxford favors bold or semi-bold rules, while Cambridge goes for a double rule. To my (obviously utterly unprejudiced) eye, the color of the Cambridge version makes it superior. The bold rules clunk a bit as you flip through a book.

Oxford style

Cambridge style

The Chicago Manual of Style rather wanly opts for a single rule at top and bottom, losing any distinction from internal rules.

The parts of a table, all of which will be identified at least in the early going in a full manuscript mark-up, include the stub, which is the list of the elements you’d look up in the table, table number, table head, column heads, spanner rules etc. This picture from Cambridge University Press’ excellent Copy-editing handbook by Judith Butcher, shows some of this.

The use of leader lines (rows of dots) is usually frowned upon in bookwork. Newspapers may routinely use them, but book compositors always tried to work out any problems of the eye jumping from one line to another by the use of spacing, both vertical, between lines, and horizontal, between the  columns.


* Here’s a manuscript page showing a rather fancy table from a manuscript of Ptolemy’s Almagest. The table lists values of arcs and chords of angles. The manuscript’s creation date is uncertain, but majority opinion inclines to the 9th century, with one or two preferring the 7th or 8th centuries.

Photo: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. grec 2389, folio 17 recto.

Here’s a typeface recognition game from Better web type.


A five-minute film which makes it all pretty straightforward.

If you see no video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

We used to spend a lot of time focussing on the quality of the output we’d get from various typesetting systems. You’d get out your loupe and scrutinize raster lines in Pacesetter or Linotron 202 repros, as if something you could only detect under high magnification could ever matter at all. But in the early days of phototypesetting this was the focus of concern: the image produced by a bit of metal type was something we knew. You knew you could rely on that good old analog reality; you could always see it; you could observe by eye and touch how smooth those curves were; you could always feel it as it indented the paper.

From Hugh Williamson: Methods of Book Design, 3rd edn. © Yale University Press 1983

Because a digital image can only be 1 or 0, on or off, black or white, the image maker has to make a decision around those curved edges: is more of my little dot black, or is it mostly white? On a curve this will obviously lead to a jagged edge as the decision goes one way or the other as you move along the slope. But it’s all on such a tiny scale that you really can’t see it happening.

Nobody would waste their time like this any more.  When a book is processed through a modern-day text processing system it remains a digital entity until it reaches the printing press, or just before that when it is used to create a printing plate. There’s not really any output to look at until you see a set of printed sheets, so we’ve just stopped worrying about it. I think this illustrates two things:

  1. If people don’t have enough to do they will worry about needless stuff, and
  2. It is difficult for people used to a tactile process, literally a hands-on-workflow, to repress the urge to touch their work, just to make sure it’s still there.

Times Roman or Times New Roman? One assumes they are different, but the reason we have these two names is merely the fact that when the face was cut for the Linotype soon after Monotype had introduced it as Times New Roman in 1932, Linotype named their version Times Roman tout court. Perhaps the name change was intended to distinguish it from the Monotype version despite the fact that, to the non-specialist eye, it looked more or less identical. The typeface which The Times (of London) used before that, what we might now call Times Old Roman, was in fact Monotype Modern, cut in 1908.

Times New Roman

The distinction in nomenclature survives the passing of hot metal typesetting: both appear as options on the Mac — Times Roman coming from the Linotype Corporation and Times New Roman from Monotype. There are differences between the two faces, but they are slight. Here from TypeTalk at CreativePro is an illustration showing some of the differences — Times Roman at the top; Times New Roman below. Basically you can see that the counter of the cap P differs, and Times Roman has pointy bits at the top of the shafts of letters, while they have been leveled off in Times New Roman on the lower line.

The creation of Times New Roman came about as the result of an insult. Allegedly when the Monotype Company was invited in 1929 to advertise in The Times’ Printing Supplement, Stanley Morison, who was Monotype’s typographical consultant, replied that he’d rather pay them £1,000 not to set an ad for them as The Times’ typographic standards were so low. Ironically Morison, who had started his working life as a bank clerk, had first become interested in type and printing when reading The Times’ previous Printing Supplement in 1912, and this next supplement got him the job of redesigning The Times, whose management immediately picked up the gauntlet.

Aesthetically not altogether lacking, the face was, it should be remembered made for the functional purpose of jamming as much text into as small a space as possible, and in this it succeeded. Morison made drawings which he then gave to Victor Lardent of The Times who translated them to reproduction standard. Morison used a design by Christophe Plantin (1520-89) as his inspiration, though there are elements of Perpetua and Baskerville in its make up. It took till 1932 for the work to be completed.

Don’t bother checking. The Times no longer uses Times New Roman. According to Wikipedia they stopped using in 1972 and replaced it with Times Europa, then Times Roman took over in 1982, Times Millennium in 1991, Times Classic in 2001, and Times Modern in 2006. Times Roman, older or newer is of course still widely used.

Here, via the SHARP listserv, is an account of some of the props used in making this film. The information is provided by Dan Franklin of The Two Sisters Press in Belleville Illinois.

Davin Kuntze of the Woodside Press in Brooklyn had this to say on the Letpress list in November 2017:

Earlier this year, I was approached to create a couple props for an upcoming major motion picture. The item in question was a front-page lockup of the Washington Post from 1971 just how they would have created it back then. With a lot of help and advice from a few experts (namely, Frank Romano at the Museum of Printing and John Christensen from Firefly Press), I pretty much managed to it pull it off with as much authenticity as I was able. I cut a few corners, mainly with the banner information, but everything else was done with a sharp eye to making it as true to an original as possible.
The creation of these props led to a three-day shoot here in our shop where we were decked out to look like an early seventies composing room at a major newspaper, smoking pipes and high-waisted pants included. They shot the up-close and personal operation of our Blue Streak Comet and Model 31 as beautifully as I’ve had the pleasure of seeing on film (and they were shooting onto actual film).
While I’m not allowed to share photos of the two front-page lockups I created just yet, the trailer just landed yesterday and, much to my surprise and enjoyment, a number of the inserts from our shop were used. Starting at about the 2-minute mark, you can catch brief glimpses of my hands, John Christensen’s hands, some mats spelling out a dramatic phrase and the distribution mechanism.


Then, Davin posted this terrific story on Jan. 16:

Marc, a good friend of mine who plays one of the Linotype operators in the film, is set up in front of the Comet on the second day so I wasn’t in the background again and to give the illusion of a much larger composing department than we actually have. An hour or two into the shoot, and he’s plonking away like he knows what he’s doing, but we had the sword in the magazine and the plunger disconnected so there wouldn’t be any malfunctions during an otherwise good take.

They set up the next shot, and from the back I hear “Ok. Now we need to have the Linotypes casting for the next scene.”
Marc looks over at me, wide-eyed.
Now, Marc has been around the shop for years and seen the machines in operation, but has never actually RUN a Linotype. I walk over and give him a two-minute crash course. Then I get off screen and give him the thumbs up. So Marc has to run a Linotype for the very first time with Steven Spielberg watching closely on the monitors and Meryl Streep standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder talking to Tom Hanks about newspapers and making history and stuff. He totally pulled it off, much to everyone’s relief. While cleaning up a couple days later, we find line after identical line, like Jack Torrance (from The Shining) had been running one of the machines. I guess Marc just found something he could touch type quickly and stuck to that.
Other people you might catch in the Linotype scenes who some of you may know are John Kristensen (from Firefly Press) and Andy Birsh (the owner of Woodside Press). Behind the scenes, we had Rich Hopkins, who cast the large Bodoni we used as as a stand-in for the handset “Post-doni” headline type. Finally, Frank Romano provided invaluable historical information as well as the two large chases for the front pages, the turtles and some other odds and ends that ended up as set dressing. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Frank’s input and assistance or Rich Hopkin’s beautiful type.

The July 2, 1978 issue of the NYT was the last set on Linotypes.

In 2016, there was a delightful story in the NYT about Rudolph Stocker, who worked at the NYT for 50 years:

The trouble with the earliest typesetting machines was always the distribution difficulty (though justification also presented persistent problems). In a letterpress print shop distribution didn’t mean what we think it means today. To distribute type is to take the individual bits of type (sorts) after they’ve been used for printing and put them back into the place they had started out from so that they could be reused for the next pages waiting to be typeset. In a hand setting world this mean distributing the sorts into the type case, putting each individual sort into the appropriate box in the case, minding your ps and qs of course, so that the compositor could start work on the new copy. Distribution would tend to be done first thing in the morning by the apprentice who had to get in early to break up the type pages which had been printed on the previous afternoon and get the individual sorts back to the starting line.

Early inventions tended to founder on this problem rather than on the easier task of getting the right sort to respond to a keystroke and drop into the right position. Type was something a printer valued. It would be obtained, at a cost, from a separate business, the type foundery, and was to that extent a “given”, representing part of the printer’s capital investment. Not until Mergenthaler and Lanston figured out that the problem could just be circumvented by recasting type every time you needed a character, was machine typesetting made truly cost effective. However the Thorne machine came close to solving the problem and was quite successful with between 1,500 and 2,000 machines produced. It traded from 1880 till about the end of World War I under the names of Thorne, Simplex and Unitype.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine used that tower to hold all the little bits of type in 90 channels where they could drop down for use in the new setting. The tower consists of two separate parts. The type for distribution would be loaded into the top, rotating part, face out, and sent to the appropriate channel in the lower part by using a series of nicks on the side of the type which distinguished every sort from every other one. Distribution could be continuous with the keyboard operator working away at the same time. After a line was set it had to be justified by a second operator, by the hand insertion of spaces and hyphens. This inefficiency was partially “justified” by suggesting that the justifier served as a sort of extra proofreader.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine is covered well at Circuitous Root, which carries many illustrations and much detail, including a link to a promotional booklet available at the Internet Archive. This booklet includes samples of the typefaces available on the Thorne, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers, including this revealing table of output and cost from APA.

The emphasis placed in the Note on the absence of heads and signatures is there to point up the efficiency even more starkly. Obviously setting a head like, say “Chapter I” would give you a quicker, easier line than the full lines of text which would follow.