[nostalgia] Phototypesetting

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[nostalgia] Phototypesetting

Post by a-h-k » Tue Jun 13, 2017 10:43 pm

In another life, I was the editor of two weekly newspapers. The editor did a bit of everything: Reporting, photography. We typeset our own copy. We wrote our own headlines. When layout got backed up, we cut 'n' pasted the mockups of each page. The cutting and pasting was literal. Every page was on its own layout board. I used to joke that the only thing I didn't do was deliver the paper, but one time, they asked me to drop off a bundle at a newsstand inside a store.

It paid less than working in fast food, but it was a fun job.

I had to learn how to use the front-end computer terminal that interfaced with the phototypesetter, the Compugraphic (I forget the model), then the affordable option for small newspapers. I'm sure the owners were out a substantial amount of money in the $10s of thousands, if not much more. They'd owned the equipment for years, battered but mostly functional. I certainly wasn't seeing the latest graphics technology in action; I'm sure they were 10 years behind the times, like most other small newspapers.

A few other things I recall: The terminal had a QWERTY keyboard with additional punctuation. No ambiguous ASCII punctuation marks. We had open and close quote; double quote was not a character, but two single quotes. Unlike Unicode, right single close quote was ambiguous, I guess, as we also used it for an apostrophe. Unicode assumes a font might use a different glyph, but most fonts don't. I've noticed that plenty of people who think they know that Unicode is better than plain text have no cloo that they are expected to use different character codes.

The keyboard had a genuine em-dash. Paragraphs were indented with an em-space. Despite the old wives' tale, an em is not the width of a capital M but the square of the font size. In nearly every font, that's wider than an M. We also had en-dashes to work with, a different character than a hyphen, with its own glyph in most fonts. A hyphen is used for a compound word or in syllabication. An en-dash is used to express a range of numbers and a few other purposes like final scores on the sports page.

In the code, I'd have to specify the point size (just two choices) and leading. I vaguely recall 8 specifications all together, but I forget what the others would have been. As we were a newspaper, the text was Times New Roman (of course) and a different font for headlines. I assume if other fonts were needed, it would have involved swapping out the master plate in the typesetting machine.

The phototypesetter itself was taller than a man and took up a corner of the layout area. We used 5 1/4" floppy disks in a proprietary format and file layout to transfer the code between the front-end terminal and the phototypesetter. The machine was fast, only took a few seconds to spit out a column of text for layout. The text was noticeably sharper than typical 600 dpi output from a laser printer these days because it was a genuine photographic process.

It wasn't just that the text was beautifully sharp. Justification was superior. Somehow the machine got the formula correct for avoiding those wavy lines of whitespace that slows one's reading pace because it's distracting. You might get that when justifying on a word processor like Microsoft Word, which finishes one line at a time without comparing adjacent lines in the paragraph. As I won't put up with bad justified output, I almost always use a ragged right margin to avoid the distracting wavy lines of whitespace.

By the late '80s, early '90s, phototypesetters had no commercial value. I'd hear of a few people who wanted to take them home. Moving them would have been expensive. I suppose there wasn't anything particularly unique about the developing chemicals, though, so they would have been cheap to operate. You didn't just need room for the machine, but for several layout boards! You would have required a good deal of room and high ceilings and a well supported floor.

Before I got there, a two-newspaper chain had been bought by the larger chain, nine papers I think. I split my office time between the former chain's office and the main office. The small chain had a very old printing press that had printed the papers till a year earlier, that was still in use for commercial jobs that didn't have tight deadlines. The press operator was younger than I was. When I was there, all newspaper printing was contracted out. The main office had space for most of the chain because they'd gotten rid of the presses that printed just one weekly.

When I began using PCs, I used a wonderful text editor called PC Write which cleverly worked within 64 K of RAM by limiting document size, and never crashed the computer. That made it fast as you didn't have to wait for all the saves to disk. I figured out how to create a print driver for a phototypesetter, so I could lay out programs and pamphlets myself without paying the printer to encode the text before phototypesetting.
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Re: [nostalgia] Phototypesetting

Post by walton » Wed Jun 14, 2017 9:56 am

Me too! I published a journal on early music. Did everything. It gave me an excuse to buy a small letter press and half a dozen fonts. I could then create camera ready art. I did farm out photo typesetting of articles . . . but I found that it was hard to get consistency from people if they weren't on top of the chemistry.

A few years ago, I had to do prepare camera ready art for something. My waxer was dead, so I drove down to Phoenix to buy a new one. The young woman at the counter asked me what I was looking for, I said a waxer. She freaked. Ran to the back room, where I heard another woman, the manager, burst into laughter . . . apparently the young woman had no idea about using wax to do layouts and thought I mean a waxer of the depilatory kind. Times have changed!

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Re: [nostalgia] Phototypesetting

Post by a-h-k » Wed Jun 14, 2017 1:34 pm

That's hysterical.

Now that I think about it, the ancient press they still kept at the office of the two newspaper chain they bought must have been a letter press, especially for the commercial work they did with it. Does it sound likely that a tiny newspaper chain would have owned a letterpress? I don't see how it could have been a web press. I don't see how any newspaper smaller than a daily in a medium sized metropolitan area could have been printed on a web press.

I was never there when they were running a small job so I never saw it in operation.

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Re: [nostalgia] Phototypesetting

Post by David Wake » Fri Jun 16, 2017 11:05 am

We had a manual press with moveable type at school for the magazine. It was a huge, amazing machine.

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Re: [nostalgia] Phototypesetting

Post by Kpub » Sat Oct 07, 2017 4:26 pm

a-h-k wrote:
Wed Jun 14, 2017 1:34 pm
Does it sound likely that a tiny newspaper chain would have owned a letterpress?
Circa 1980 I was working on a college magazine that was produced by pasting up phototype. It was printed in the shop of a three-issues-per-week local newspaper; the magazine was in tabloid format but using better paper. The shop had a letter press and used it (not for us and not for the newspaper).

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