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Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and Cadence will be off. Breakfast Bytes will not appear. And so today is the last day before a holiday, and so I write about something off-topic. Today, printing. In fact, it is not totally off-topic since printing is all done with computers these days. But when I was a teenager, our school had an early 20th-century printing press. I joined the class and headed up what was effectively the printing club, although it was called the Wycliffe College Press. Wycliffe was the name of the school, named after John Wycliffe, the 14th-century English dissident priest and bible translator. There is something very appropriate about working on printing in a school named after a bible translator. After all, Gutenberg famously printed the bible and started the process of disseminating learning to the masses, and the beginning of the bible being available in local languages (vernacular) and not just Latin. There's even a weak Martin Luther King Jr connection since he was a Christian minister, too.
But today's topic is how letterpress printing was done, and how a lot of the terminology migrated into the way we do it today on computers. That type of printing was called "letterpress" since each individual letter was its own piece of type, made from a lead-alloy (except for very large type for posters, which was wood). When laser-printers and word processors arrived on the Mac, and later the PC, one thing that they got wrong was what a "font" is.
In a print shop of that era, and in our school press room, there would be a cabinet like in the picture. Each of those drawers would hold a font. Since the letters were pieces of metal, any change required switching to a different drawer. So a drawer would contain something like "10 point Times New Roman". If you wanted italic, you would have to go to "10 point Times New Roman Italic". If you wanted 12-point, you would have to find "12 point Times New Roman." If you wanted something totally different, you could find "10 point Helvetica." And so on. Those drawers were called "fonts". What on a computer we called a font is technically called a "typeface". So "Times New Roman" is a typeface. "24pt Times New Roman Bold" is a font.
Point is the smallest unit of measure used in printing, equal to 1/72 of an inch. So a "12-point" font has all the letters on a lead base that is 12/72" = 1/6" high. Between each line of letters, a thin strip of lead would be inserted, partially to space the lines, and partially to help all the letters stay in place during the actual printing. We still have that in programs like Word, where it is called the "leading". In journalism, since all the words associated with lead are tied up with the mechanics of the printing process, the theme of an article became known as the "lede" (pronounced "leed"), most well known in the journalist's admonition "don't bury the lede", meaning make sure to open with the most important point and not something secondary.
Another unit was the "em". Typically the uppercase "M" would be square, and so the letter was as wide as the point size. This was used to measure "slugs", spacers that didn't print, spaces (to go between words), dashes ("an em-dash" still exists today—that's one). In letterpress, that dash was a square piece of type. Rules were also measured in ems. They were made out of brass, since a thin rule made out of soft lead would be too easily damaged. Even with lead type, sometimes the letter M was actually not as wide as an em, and with modern computer typefaces, it almost never is. So em is just shorthand for the size of the font. To add to the confusion, em sometimes means a 12-point em, since line lengths are typically specified in 12-point ems when using lead type. This is also sometimes called a "pica". That made it easy to set up the composing stick by using an appropriate number of 12-point slugs. For example, a line 6" long is 36 ems, and so you can use 9 four-em slugs to set the length.
To assemble something for printing is called composing, and is done using a composing stick as in the picture. You first have to set the composing stick to the line length, normally by using an appropriate number of em slugs. When you hold it, you have to angle it so that the type is held in place by gravity, both all the existing lines, and the characters of the line that you are working on. Then you put the letters into the stick one at a time. Note in the diagram of the single letter earlier that each letter has an indentation on one side (the "nick") that lets you make sure you get the letter the right way up.
There are then two new challenges when you start doing this. The first is that the type is backward, a mirror image of what will print, so you need to get used to reading things backward. Even today, years later, I have no trouble reading backward type.
The second problem is that you need to get to know where the letters appear in the font drawer. The font drawer has different sized compartments for different letters. This is because some letters ("w", for example) are larger than others ("i" say) and so need more space. But also that some letters are more common in English than others and so a font will have more of that letter and so it needs a bigger compartment. You can see that "e" has the largest compartment of all. Two letters you need to pay particular attention to are "b" and "d" since they look like the other one if you forget that they are backward. There are also some special characters known as ligatures. In the top left of the drawer layout are a couple of them: "ffi" and "fl". These have a single piece of type for the whole character (in most typefaces) since there is no gap between the letters. This carries over onto your computer. If you open up Word, use Times New Roman, and type "ff" or "ffi" you will see that Word automatically replaces the individual letters with a special character. Between words, you put a standard space. But if your text is justified then when you don't have room for another word then you need to add additional tiny spaces like shims to make the line exactly the right length. This is clearly a lot slower than just clicking on a menu item in Word!
By the way, I believe some layouts of font drawers had everything split into two, with the uppercase letters, punctuation, and infrequently used characters in one drawer, and the lowercase letters in the other. During composition, the rack that held the cases were arranged with one above the other. Hence the terms uppercase and lowercase. I'm used to the single drawer layout in the diagram.
Once the text is composed (or comped) then it is assembled into the whole page to be printed (or perhaps more depending on the size of the printing press to be used). This is locked into place in a steel frame called a chase. The chase can be put into the printer and then inked up. Our press at school was similar to the one in the picture but about twice as large. It was driven by the foot treadle you can see, and kept going between strokes of the treadle by the flywheel. The paper to be printed was inserted one sheet at a time by hand (and get your hands out of the way). The press had apparently started life on an ocean liner printing a daily newspaper, the menus, and more.
Afterward, the type would be dissed, which I think is short for distributed. That meant putting it all back one letter at a time into the right compartment of the right font. If a word was in italic, don't forget, it goes in a different drawer. And beware of those "b"s and "d"s and "p"s and "q"s. They are easy to get wrong. Also, you need to be aware of the nicks, since otherwise it is almost impossible to tell "u" and "n" apart, or "p" and "d".
Even our school press had a couple of dozen fonts, so there are literally thousands of pieces of type that have to be kept in the correct place. If you dropped a font drawer, as occasionally happened, it was a lengthy and tedious process to pick up all the letters off the floor and put them in the correct compartments.
Now, with laser printers, life is a lot simpler. But the printing press was probably the second human-changing invention in 1440 (after agriculture millennia earlier in 9500 BC). Then the industrial revolution 300-400 years later.
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