Academic journal article Printing History

The Electric Typesetter: The Origins of Computing in Typography

Academic journal article Printing History

The Electric Typesetter: The Origins of Computing in Typography

Article excerpt

STANDARD HISTORY places the fusing of typography with the computer circa 1985, with the revolution of desktop publishing. Until then, as the story went, typography and printing had marched slowly and tediously forward from Gutenberg's first page of metal type. Typesetting became mechanical, then photochemical, and printing moved on from the hard relief ofletterpress into the softer kiss of the offset press. But the process of production was essentially manual, performed by a team of specialists--typographers designed the layout, typesetters set the type, and layout artists assembled the final elements. This all changed upon the heroic arrival of the Macintosh desktop computer and PageMaker page-layout software, with reinforcements from the LaserWriter desktop laser printer and the Linotronic imagesetting machine. Carrying a gleaming, digitized manifesto of graphical user interfaces and device-independent PostScript, the visionaries of desktop publishing scoffed at our dark past, damning those sad days of bluelines and bromides, the foul smells of molten wax and lead, the inconvenience of doing things by hand.

The story was compelling. The personal computer was cast in the role it has played so often since: a magical machine that could replace all previous toil with glorious creativity. By using a computer, everything could change for the better, overnight. But in reality, the revolution was more of an evolution, resting on a foundation established over many centuries in which computing was already part of the typographic scene.

Typography has always implied computation. Typography works with symbols, codes that represent the alphabets of our languages, and standardized methods (justification, pagination) that build formal aesthetic structures (lines, columns, pages). Even a printer's composing stick implements an algorithm: The sum of the widths of all the assembled letters of metal type, plus the sum of all the spaces, must equal the final measure of the line, and vice versa. By thinking expansively about typography as a computational act, this essay considers the convergence of changes within mathematics, computing, and typesetting that made desktop publishing possible. In short, looking at the numbers behind the letters.

Before digital computers, generations of mechanical computers evolved over millennia. Their increasing precision and power coincided with the desire for automatic typesetting systems and merged to create single-purpose mechanical typesetting computers like the Linotype and Monotype. The rise of digital computers brought not only speed and efficiency to calculations, but it expanded coding systems, which made treating textual information as easy as numeric data. At the same time, phototypesetting machines evolved out of the older mechanical systems. As each type of device left behind its fixed-purpose, mechanical roots, the plasticity of the programmable world, and the advantages of fast digital communications led to symbiotic systems that took over more and more of the functions of traditional typography.

Meanwhile, the emerging field of computer graphics invented new formal models into which typography could be integrated more holistically. Display screens and mice supplanted keyboards and punch cards, and a quickly advancing rate of computing power allowed the human-computer interface to be metaphorical. By sufficiently simulating the old ways of typographical production in a sleek new package, desktop publishing was able to push out the old leaders and allow a much wider audience to teach themselves elements of publication that were once a mysterious art.

Why Compute?

Today, typography is as intertwined with computers as anything else in our hyperconnected modern lives. For most people who work with type, imagining typography without computers implies a full retreat to handset metal type, as if computerized typesetting was born fully formed in the late twentieth century. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.