Typesetting: A History

In the 21st century, what with word processing programs that allow us to select fonts or line spacing, or more sophisticated page layout applications that allow us to adjust line leading, kerning and tracking, we often forget how type used to be set – by hand.  It really wasn’t until the 19th century that hand-setting type was replaced by other methods, progressing as technology found new ways to increase the speed of how type was set.  So, let’s take a look back at the ways type used to be set, which will give us a unique perspective on how type is done today.

6a01156f7ea6f7970b0133f4a139c1970b-800wiHAND SET TYPE

When I was in high school, I had to learn how to hand set type.  Back then we didn’t use litho presses yet, but we did use letterpresses, sometimes called platen presses, to print business cards, or anything that our teenage minds could think of (many of which our instructor had to tell us to toss in the trash, due to their dubious content!)  The 2nd semester we learned about camera work and litho film, stripping, platemaking, and running a simple press.  But hand setting type stuck with me.  We had to learn the California Job Case, where each letter, space and line leading was, so we could hand set the type quickly.  From the Chinese who invented movable type blocks from wood, to Johannes Gutenberg, who developed the first printing press, up until the 19th century, type was set by hand and run through letterpresses.  You would select a font IMG_0003and size in a specific case or drawer, and select each letter one-at-a-time, placing them into what was called a composing stick.  You would add m-spaces, or n-spaces, and various line leadings to either flush left, flush right or justify the copy.  When you had a section done, you placed them in a frame called a chase, and using blocks of wood, lock it into place with a quoin lock.  Then that chase was placed into the platen or letterpress, and you’d print away.  A bit of trivia, lowercase letters were kept in the “lower” case, and upper case letters were kept in the “upper” case.  Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were done  by setting the type by hand.  I think it’d be interesting to find a copy that has a typo – something that I think was quite common in the mid-18th century.


During the 19th century the process of setting type took a major step forward with the invention of hot metal typesetting.  The process used a keyboard, like the typewriter, where the operator (or what we’d call a typesetter) could produce the desired text.  In the 1880’s, the Linotype machine used the same process to create what were called “casting matrices”, which could cast an entire line of type.  This way, instead of hand-setting one letter or space at a time, the entire line was created as a single piece of lead.  They still needed to put the line into a chase and secure it with quoins, but the laborious step of hand-setting each letter was now supplanted with this more “automated” method.


In the 1960’s, as astronauts orbited the earth and the Vietnam war started, phototypesetting became the preferred way to set type, and the hot metal and Linotype machines became obsolete.  The process used either glass or thick plastic discs (which eventually became strips of film) which contained the fonts you would wish to use.  These would spin rapidly in front of a light source, exposing photo-sensitive paper, which could be processed and then pasted onto art boards.  To switch fonts, the typesetter simply opened up the machine, and removed the disc or strip, replacing it with a new font. Typesetting was a great skill, since the typesetter needed to be able to determine font size, leading, spacing, kerning, tracking, and returns in order to fit the desired space called out for by the graphic artist.  They may have had visuals that would require them to measure the area so they could configure the type.  This was still much faster than hand-set or hot metal typesetting, but it still required skill and knowledge to make sure the type fit the desired space and formated around photographs or illustrations.


During the 1980’s, while Ronald Reagan was helping with the collapse of the Soviet Union, two guys in the San Francisco bay area created the Apple MacIntosh, and desktop publishing became the new way to set type.  It wasn’t just setting type, though.  It was assisted by the creation of programs such as PageMaker and Quark Express, which allowed a typesetter to now become a graphic artists.  Typesetters could select fonts and manipulate size, kerning, spacing, tracking or leading to wrap around graphic elements on the screen.  They could create blends or vignettes, drop in screens, scan photos and place them on the page, with the type wrapping around the image.  Eventually, Adobe established the suite of programs that we know today as Creative Suites, which allowed for integration across all the programs.  And graphic artists, limited by artboards and rubylith, now had freedom to design works of great artistry and intricacy, never attainable with handset type, or even typesetting machines.

For those of you in the Southern California area, you can visit the International Printing Museum, located in Carson, California, where you can see a marvelous collection of printing presses and typesetting machines.  For information, visit their website.

Connect with John on Google+Twitter and LinkedIn.


About John Prothero

John Prothero is a print professional with over 30 years experience in the print industry. Starting out as a driver delivering jobs, he worked in bindery, proofing, plating, traditional prepress (camera and stripping), scheduling, job planning, job management, account management and digital job production. His skills also run in the area of blog authorship, social media management, and lead generation and qualification of prospective clients. John is also a contributor to Rhode Island Creative Magazine, a digital publication that highlights the creative spirit of the state of Rhode Island. You can read their online issues at www.ricreativemag.com
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2 Responses to Typesetting: A History

  1. Katherine says:

    Is there anything print geeky you don’t know?

  2. Pingback: Opening doors and making a living with mad touch typing skills | hittingthesweetspot by Bob Skelley

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