History of Typesetting: A journey through the different evolutionary phases of typesetting

As we continue to benefit from sophisticated word processing programs that facilitate fonts or line spacing and classier page layout applications that promote easy line leading, kerning, and tracking, we tend to overlook times from the past when type was set by hand. It was from 19th century onwards that new typesetting methods were introduced and with every technological development, speedier typesetting processes were brought into practice.

basic principles of typesetting

Let’s take a tour through the history of typesetting, which would allow us to get a

  1. Manual typesetting

    Movable type was commonly composed by hand for each page during the letterpress era. Cast metal sorts were formed into words, lines, paragraphs, text pages, and bound together to create a form which was kept in a press and then inked so as to make a mark on the paper. During the process, the right hand is used to pick individual sorts from a type case and it is then fixed into a composing that is held in the left hand. For centuries, wooden sorts were paired up with metal sorts. One major of the casterman is the “set” or width of every sort. The width of the set is measured in points. This typesetting was commonly used to print book and newspapers by rotary presses. In a process called stereotyping, the form is pressed into a fine matrix, which is named flong, to form a positive from which sterotype can be electrotyped.

    Back then, there was a predominant use of letterpresses, also referred to as platen presses, to create business cards. After this, there was the introduction of the California Job Case that allowed for a quick way to hand set the type. It was in China that movable type blocks were invented and made from wood and it was Johannes Gutenberg who developed the first printing press. Till then, type was set by hand and implemented through letterpresses.

    In this process, you should begin by selecting a font and size in a particular drawer, selecting each letter one by one and putting them into the composing stick. Next, you need to add m or n-spaces as well as line leadings to justify the copy or to facilitate left or right alignments. Once a section is completed, you have to place it in a frame called chase and after this, you have to use blocks of wood to secure it using a quoin lock. In the next step, the chase needs to be placed into the letterpress in order to facilitate the printing process. Notably, people using this process in the past used to keep lower case letters in the “lower” case and upper case letters in the “upper” case. Interestingly, the hand set type was used to generate copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, during the mid 18th century, typos were quite common in copies.

  2. Hot Metal Typesetting

    The introduction of hot metal typesetting during the 19th century marked a grand innovation in the industry, taking typesetting to a great height. The hot metal typesetting process involved the use of a keyboard similar to a typewriter by an operator who was referred to as the typesetter. Notably, it was during the 1880s that the Linotype machine was used in the same manner to create ‘casting matrices’, which could cast a whole line of type. This method was much more efficient than the previous methods because this method could generate an entire line as a single piece of lead instead of generating one letter or space at a time. However, the operators still required to place the line into a chase and keep it fixed with quoins. But the positive point was that the tedious job of hand-setting each letter could now be replaced with a sort of an automated process.

  3. .
  4. Phototypesetting

    It was during the 1960s that phototypesetting emerged as the most commonly used method for setting type. It was during this time that the hot metal and Linotype machines lost their credibility in the market. In this process, thick plastic discs or glass were used as the carriers of the fonts that were needed to be used. These discs were spun speedily in front of a source of light and photo-sensitive paper is exposed to this light, allowing it to be processed and pasted on art boards. The typesetter needed to open the machine to remove the disc or strip in order to switch fonts or to replace with one type of font with a new font. Typesetting was regarded as a job that demanded skill because the typesetter had to determine kerning, leading, spacing, tracking, font size, and returns so as to be able to fit the space that is meant to be used by the graphic artist. The typesetters had to measure the space in order to include visuals and to configure the type. While this process was far more efficient than hot metal typesetting or hand set type, it still called for the operators’ skill or knowledge to ensure that the type fitted the selected space and was appropriately formatted around images or illustrations.

  5. The Advent of the Digital Typography

    The phototypesetting machines underwent evolution and another generation of typesetting devices was launched. These machines produced characters on a cathode ray tube. Among the most popular machines that were used were Alphanumeric APS2, launched in 1963, IBM 2680, launched in 1967, Videocomp, launched in 1973, Autologic APS5, introduced in 1975, and Linotron 202, introduced in 1978. These typsesetting devices were predominantly used during the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, a computer front-end system was used to drive these machines online and type fonts were stored on traditional magnetic disk drives in digital format. During the 1980s, completely digital systems that came equipped with raster image processors that could efficiently support imagesetting were introduced. The introduction of these completely-digital systems pushed out computer-aided phototypesetting from the market.

Monotype LaserComp was the first laser imagesetter that was successfully used in a commercial scale. This device came equipped with a raster image processor. This was soon followed by the introduction of similar machines by companies such as Compugraphic and ECRM. The 1970s witnessed the introduction of the earlier models of minicomputer-based typesetting software and some of the most noted programs were Penta, Xyvision, Datalogics Pager, Troff, IBM’s Script, Atex, and Miles 33. These programs were found to be compatible with the electromechanical devices and notably, they made use of text markup languages to communicate type and formatting-related data. With time, these text marup languages assumed their present-day forms namely, SGML, XML, and HTML.

These minicomputer systems used imposition software on devices and produced entire pages and signatures of 4, 8, 16, or more pages. A typical example is that of Scitex Dolev, made in Israel. These systems made use of data stream to enable page layout on imagesetters and printers. Such systems, which were unique to a specific manufacturer or machine, promoted the development of Hewlett-Packard's PCL, Adobe Systems' PostScript, and other generalized printer control languages. Interestingly, a certain section of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Renaissance of English Art” was typeset in italics, in Iowan Old Style, and adjusted to 10 words per line.

Computerized typesetting was not much into practice and notably, the BYTE magazine never used computers in production till 1979. BYTE made use of a Compugraphics system to generate copies of its August 1979 issue. Even though the magazine used compugraphics system for typesetting and for designing page layout, it still discouraged the use of floppy disks for article submission even though it indicated that it would use floppies at a later period. Specialist typesetting companies used to handle the typesetting needs of publishers and advertisers before the 1980s. These companies, which accounted for a large percentage of the graphics art industry, provided end-to-end typesetting support that included keyboarding, proofreading and editing, and generation of film or paper output. These companies were located in the rural areas of the United States namely in New England or in rural Pennsylvania.

The desktop publishing was introduced in 1985 and the world witnessed the launch of Apple Macintosh, Aldus Pagemaker, PostScript, and QuarkXpress. Software and hardware enhancements and reduction in typesetting costs made desktop publishing very popular. Additionally, desktop publishing allowed typesetters to exercise fine control over the typesetting outcomes.

Desktop publishing was not just about setting type, but the advent of PageMaker and Quark now transformed a typesetter into a graphic artist. Typesetters could now select fonts and manipulate size and could perform spacing, kerning, tracking or leading efficiently in order to wrap graphics around the screen. The typesetters could scan images and out them on the page and create vignettes or blends. Ultimately, Adobe created a software suite that we refer to as Creative Suites today. This suite supported integration across major programs. So far, the graphic artists had only artboards and rubylith to work with and now they could exercise complete freedom to design intricate designs that they could never create withor even typesetting machines.

The cost was remarkably less than the costs associated with the use of minicomputer-run systems. During the same time, Wang, WordPerfect and other word processors gave a whole new makeover to office documents. However, these word processing systems still lacked the typographic capability or flexibility that is needed to produce books of complicated layout that might feature graphics or mathematics. These processors could not support advanced hyphenation and justification rules as well.

It is noteworthy to mention that by 2000, this segment lost its importance because of the fact that publishers had now started incorporating typesetting and graphic design on their in-house systems. Some chose to allocate this task to freelancers. The availability of free fonts made the do-it-yourself approach popular, but a large gap was observed between amateurs and skilled designers. The arrival of PostScript along with the PDF format promoted a worldwide method for proofing layouts and designs and the documents were accessible on multiple operating systems and computers.

SCRIPT Variants

IBM created as well as prompted the development of typesetting languages with names that were derived from “SCRIPT”. The advanced versions of SCRIPT consisted of new features such as multicolumn page layout, automatic generation of index and table of contents, automatic hyphenation, footnotes, spelling verification, and automatic hyphenation.

Later, scholars at the University of Waterloo created the Waterloo Script. MIT created a version of SCRIPT and the UW used the program for the first time in 1975. During the 1970s, the SCRIPT was the only feasible option to format documents and to perform word processing using a computer. During the latter half of the 1980s, the SCRIPT was enhanced with several upgrades.

In the May 1975 issue of the Computing Centre Newsletter, the following positive points about SCRIPT were mentioned:

  • It could easily format footnotes.
  • The page numbers could be made to appear in Roman or Arabic numerals, at the centre, left, or right of the page, or on the top and bottom of the page.
  • Overstriking or underscoring could be made to work as a function of SCRIPT.
  • The SCRIPT files were found to be CMS files or OS databases.
  • Users could get access to outputs either at the terminal or on the printer.

SGML and XML Systems

IBM’s Generalized Markup Language (GML) forms the basis of the standard generalized markup language (SGML). The international standard DSSSL was established to give ideas for stylesheets for SGML documents. XML is a descendent of SGML. XSL-FO is commonly used to create PDF files from XML files. The advent of SGML/XML as the document model popularized typesetting engines including Miles 33's OASYS, FrameMaker, Datalogics Pager, Xyvision's XML Professional Publisher (XPP), Penta, Arbortext, etc. XSL-FO compatible engines such as Apache FOP and RenderX’s XEP allow users to program their XML typesetting process using scripting languages.

Troff and successors

Joseph Ossanna, who used to work at Bell Laboratories, created the troff typesetting program during the 1970s to run a Wang C/A/T phototypesetter created by the Labs. Later, Brian Kernighan improvised troff to support the creation of output through different devices such laser printers. This version is not much in use these days, however, it is still used in Unix and systems similar to Unix to typeset several high-end computer and technical books.

TeX and LaTeX Typsesetting

Computer scientist Donald E. Knuth developed the TeX system in late 1970s, which emerged as a widely-used and efficient automated typesetting system that created new benchmarks in the industry. Users may find it quite difficult to learn TeX on their own and it focuses less on structure than on appearance.

Computer scientist Leslie Lamport created the LaTeX macro package during the 1980s and this program had a much simpler interface and a much easier way to encode document structure in a systematic manner. In academic fields, LaTex markup is commonly used to publish papers and books. Standard TeX does not provide any interface, but there are separate programs, such as LyX, Scientific Workplace, and MiKTeX, which provide interfaces.

Typesetting has passed through several stages of evolution to finally assume its present-day modern and efficient makeover. Over these years, we have been witnessing the emergence of professional typesetting company that operate through a team of experienced typesetters who have profound technical knowledge and can deliver desired outcomes. If you are looking for professional typesetting services, feel free to comment on this blog. We would be happy to guide you through the process.