Monotype!

Joshua Langman's picture

I just returned yesterday from a week-long workshop at the press and letterfoundry of Michael & Winifred Bixler, through the Wells College Summer Book Arts Institute. Mike and Winnie Bixler run what is perhaps the last fully functioning commercial Monotype shop in the U.S. They do mainly text composition for publishers and have been known to do some very high-profile jobs. (At the moment, they're typesetting the Book of Mormon, and I had the pleasure of watching Winnie set the lengthly title page text in 9 pt by hand — several times.)

The workshop was a really enlightening experience. I learned to set text on the Monotype keyboard, cast it with the composition caster, and cast individual sorts on the Supercaster. For those who, like me before this week, may not know much about Monotype, here's a little summary of how it all works:

Monotype is a typesetting technology that was developed around 1890. It is a brilliantly designed system that uses nothing but mechanical engineering (gear ratios, fan belts, levers, etc) to do some incredible things. The process begins at the keyboard. The monotype keyboard is first fitted with the proper "key bar" for the face and size in which you are going to set your type. This tells the keyboard the width of each character and its position in the matte case for the specific font. The keyboard has five alphabets: roman lc, roman caps, italic lc, italic, caps, and small caps. (If working in a sans serif face, the "italic" keys might be used for bold.) The tricky thing about the keyboard is that you need to type every piece of metal that would appear on a line if you were composing it by hand: every quad, thin space, and so on that is necessary to fill out the line to the end of the measure. Also, there are special keys for kerning characters that stick off the left of the type body (a, e, o) for using after W, V, Y. Oh, and because W is too wide to fit on its body, it's necessary to type a high space before every cap W — at least in the typeface I was working in.

I was brave and decided to start off by keyboarding justified text (which actually turned out to be, in my opinion, easier than ragged right). When working in justified mode, the keyboard works something like a manual typewriter. At four ems from the end of a line, a bell dings and a pointer points to a cell on a justification table. The cell contains two numbers that the operator types in, which tell the caster how wide to make the spaces in order to justify the line. What is incredible to me is that without using any electronics — without having any kind of "brain" or processor — the keyboard is able to do the necessary division to arrive at these numbers. As you type, the mechanism adds up the widths (eighteen possible) of the characters and counts the spaces, then divided the remaining space by the number of word spaces to arrive at the correct size for each word space. It's the genius of nineteenth-century mechanics.

As an operator, you need to anticipate when you're about to start typing what will be the last line in a paragraph, and switch to "ragged right" mode (pull the lever) before you begin that line. When you come to the end of a ragged right line, a notch on a gear will point to a digit, 0 through 9. This is the number of Monotype units that your line length is under an even multiple of nine. (The Monotype system divides the em into eighteen units. An en is nine units.) If the notch indicates 0, you're in luck, and you can just quad out to the end of the line: 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 18 18. If the notch points to, say, 4, you need to add 4 to 9, to get 13 (the necessary number of units) and then type the sum into the keyboard on special "spacer" keys. Here's where it gets tricky. The only spacer keys are 5, 6, 7, and 9 units. So, to type "13," you can't just input "4, 9," because there's no four. So you type "6, 7," because 6 + 7 = 13. Now you're at an even multiple of nine, and you can quad to the end of the line. If you make a mistake, you can hit a "kill" key, which will cancel that line.

As you're typing, the keyboard mechanism punches holes in a paper tape, which the caster will read in the manner of a player piano. BUT how will the caster know how large to make the spaces or which lines to kill when the justification numbers and kill characters are at the end of the line? Well, the casting machine reads the paper tape backwards — so the first characters on every line are either the justification commands for that line or a command to ignore the line entirely. The composition caster blows compressed air through the paper tape, and where there are holes, the air is able to continue down any one of a series of tubes that causes metal pegs to pop up in specific locations and halt the motion of two levers. These levers position the matte case (which contains the molds of every character in the font) over the spigot that is connected to a pot of molten lead (700 degrees — I burned my thumb.) There are also wedges that move to certain positions corresponding to a character to indicate how wide to cast the body for that character. The machine casts the text at about one character per second, and the characters come out in a neat line. After each line is finished, a mechanism pushes it out onto a galley, where the lines form a column of text.

It was an amazing experience seeing my text pop out of the machine a character at a time like that. Of course, inevitably I had made typos, which I had to correct by hand in a composing stick. In several cases, I forgot paragraph indents and needed to rejustify paragraphs by hand.

There's something about working in Monotype that is inherently different — and, I think, more rewarding — than composing type on a computer. First of all, I felt proud about every letter on that page when I had finished. When it takes complicated mechanical maneuvers to cast an accented character, you feel darn proud of that little é. The other wonderful thing about working with Monotype is that things that are now only abstract concepts — type size, measure, leading — are real-world, mechanical considerations. If I wanted to change the type size on the Supercaster, I had to spin the metal wheel and try my best to spin it accurately. If I wanted to change the measure, I had to keyboard the whole text over again. No undo command, no room for guessing, no allowance for making up the design as you go.

In addition to casting text, I cast a font of Hebrew on the Supercaster, which casts one sort at a time. The Bixlers had been given a font of Hebrew mattes, but had never had a use for them. Since I know some Hebrew, I figured I'd give it a go, and so I ended up being the first person to cast and print from this Hebrew font, of which there are apparently only two sets of mattes known to exist.

So what does it mean to work in Monotype in the modern world? Mike estimates that he has about enough paper tapes to last another year. What will he do after that? I asked, and he doesn't yet know. But this is such a rewarding way of producing typographic work that I want to see it stay alive.

I figured that some Typophiles might be interested in my experiences, which is why I found myself writing this lengthy description. Has anyone else here worked in Monotype and have stories to share?

(I ended up with two Tupperware containers of typos:)

Joshua Langman's picture

Apologies — accidentally posted too soon. More coming.

kentlew's picture

> What is incredible to me is that without using any electronics — without having any kind of "brain" or processor — the keyboard is able to do the necessary division to arrive at these numbers.

Yes, this was indeed a brilliant bit of mechanical computing.

This is also the crux of the reason for unitized widths in Monotype designs, which we often talk about, but which I don’t think [young] people realize the rationale behind.

The Linotype had a completely different method for justifying mechanically (the tapered spaceband). And it had it’s own bit of brilliant mechanical computing for the sorting and redistribution of the matrices.

These two hot-metal composing/casting machines really were *amazing* inventions.

Excellent descriptions, Joshua. Congratulations on the whole experience.

quadibloc's picture

Of course, mechanical justification took place in mechanisms far humbler than a Monotype caster. Although the unit system was far more crude, yielding results that were not acceptable as real typography, the humble Varityper carried out this task.

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