Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type (5)

An idiot’s guide to fonts

As NY Times columnist Russell Baker once wrote, “Of all the people expressing their mental vacuity, none has a better excuse for an empty head than the newspaperman: If he pauses to restock his brain, he invites onrushing deadlines to trample him flat. Broadcasting the contents of empty minds is what most of us do most of the time, and nobody more relentlessly than I.” That could well be the motto of PSACOT.

The 50,000-foot view of fonts: Fonts hanging out

Useless knowledge I carry around:

  • fonts are either serif (the ones with little lines at the end of each letter, like Times New Roman)
  • or sans serif, the modern ones that are all straight lines, and you can’t tell the difference between a 1 and a lower case l. (Which is why this column is in a serif font: 11 point Georgia)
  • Kerning is the space between letters, and you can make a line of “type” or a headline fit by reducing it (usually allowing one letter to encroach under the overhang of another)

The whole series: Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type.


Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type (4)

I have scoured the Internet, and cannot for the life of me find the actual name and model number of the Compugraphic headline typesetting machine.

There were a number of font strips (hung on a wire above the machine) representing various type fonts and sizes. An editor would specify a headline as “36 point.” You’d grab the 36 point font and place it in the back of the machine. As I recall, it exposed a strip of film that was advanced by hand between each letter.

They were called heds. The word was one letter shorter than heads. It was probably the eternal human desire to cover specialized skill with pointless jargon. Calling lead paragraphs ledes made a little sense, since it was a homonym with the lead that was melted to make type. But heds? Go figure.

If you developed the film and the hed was too long, you could reduce the space between letters (kerning) by backspacing a quarter space or half space between letters. Quarter and half were not marked, so it was by feel. A good touch on the Compugraphic was a marketable skill, now as valued as good buggy whips. I was good, but not great.

The headline rule at The Tech (as I am sure elsewhere) was: 9 pm it must be good and fit. 10pm: OK and fit. 11pm: fit.

The whole series: Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type.


Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type (3)

The IBM MT/ST (look it up) was the machine upon which Len Deighton wrote the first word-processed novel. It was large, expensive and heavy, and was built around the IBM Selectric (“golf ball”) typewriter.

At a newspaper, you printed text on coated paper, cut out the copy with an X-Acto knife, placed hot wax on the back, and affixed it to a cardboard form with a roller.

Thus it was that this clumsy soul was frequently advised, by John Hanzel and Bill Roberts, among others, “Don’t bleed on the copy.” My frequent finger cuts threatened the pristine text, which would have to be reprinted if bloodied.

Hot wax got on our tilted glass composing table; the only solvent that removed it was carbon tetrachloride. I loved the smell and would sniff it. Essentially, I was sniffing glue. Luckily I a) didn’t do it often, b) didn’t get hooked and c) apparently didn’t destroy my liver.

In today’s computerized world, text is never long or short because of computer layout. That wasn’t true in 1973. We used Wizard of Id panels to fill in when text (we called it copy) ran short. Professionals had other ways to fill the space, with bus plunges or Japanese earthquakes.

The whole series: Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type.


Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type (2)

When I was at Windows Magazine, my editor Mike Elgan threatened to write a macro that automatically cut the first three grafs (paragraphs) of every story I wrote. He called them “throat clearing,” which, I admit, has been my only bad writing habit. In any case, the throat clearing (or exposition as they call it in the script-writing business) is now over. We get to my personal experiences in the long-dead world of typesetting.

Although the Beech Street Bugle attempted justification with a typewriter on mimeograph masters (look it up), it was very difficult and looked ugly. But a straight right edge, in 1964, screamed “professional news.” I could have this column justified, but I decided it’s the 21st century, so, no.

My first experience with real, automated justification came at MIT in 1970, during the nine months I worked at Ergo, an alternative Objectivist weekly newspaper at MIT.

Every classroom and activity at MIT had a teletype terminal with a daisy wheel printer connected to the time-sharing MULTICS mainframe. There was a word processing program (a what?) that produced justified text (with a little help from the operator). The Volkswagen of typesetting.

Then I switched to MIT’s real newspaper, The Tech, which drove the Rolls Royce of typesetting, the IBM MT/ST.

The whole series: Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type.


Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type (1)

From the time of Gutenberg to the time of Neil Armstrong, good looking printed matter was expensive and laborious, and involved molten lead. The first chink in the armor of the prosperous job printing industry came around the time of Mark Twain (the author of the first commercially published book written on a typewriter).

Typed documents were OK, but screamed amateur; if you were a professional you had printed stationery and business cards. Job printing, like so many other industries, was destroyed by computers (the multi-font Apple Macintosh and its successors) and the Internet (why print something when electrons and email are free?)

In case you ever wondered, quotes and underlining were simply the typewriter way to imitate italic and bold type fonts used in printing.

Among the things we have lost are taste and talent. Now, any schmo with a computer thinks he can design and print a good-looking document; self-publishers think the same of books (which is why there is an entire industry of talented book designers―check the credits at the front of the next paper book you’ll never buy). Fact is, amateurs produce work that looks like crap. But no one can tell anymore: thank you Internet for normalizing bad design.

The whole series: Things No One Will Ever Do Again: Set Type.