By The Drum | Administrator

June 2, 2006 | 5 min read

Each letter was hammered home with such violence that the typewriter physically bounced around the desk. The high-voltage hum that emanated from it added to the sense of danger. This was new technology Scotmedia style circa 1984. We had just acquired our first bit of new-fangled kit – a golf ball typewriter; complete with correction ribbon. Working with it gave one the sense of doing the results on Saturday’s Grandstand.

It was a big improvement on the mechanical machine we used before. Back then – enthusiastic hack that I was – it was still possible to punch away with such vigour that the individual typewriter arms got balled together in a metal mess. You had to physically unpick them. Talk about interrupting your flow.

But we were never a business to stand still. Our golf ball was quickly followed by a new Brother typewriter that allowed you to preview every line, before the machine committed it to the page.

It was black, but several key components were picked out in day-glo green which gave it a cutting edge feel. Well, I thought that until I spotted the typewriter, that had looked so high tech to me, in an Edinburgh antique shop. Somebody pass the Werther Originals.

The next stage in our progression was an investment of about £3,000 to buy our first computer – which came with a green screen. The whole company shared it, including accounts, editorial and circulation.

Production were still in a world that included hand-drawn page plans, lots of cow gum and type sheets, supplied by the printer to illustrate the various font options they could offer. You used these to count out the number of preferred characters in the heading you wanted – and then hoped it wouldn’t bust when the printer actually set it for you.

However, some things did work better. I actually experienced posting a first class letter in the morning that arrived at its destination by second post the SAME day.

Even then, from today’s perspective of Quark, ISDN, straight to plate printing and new media, such an environment seems like the stone age.

But that clunky backward world represented a quantum leap on what had been before. And recently I received a reminder of the dramatic days when compositors actually had buckets of molten lead at their feet, during a clearout of our office.

Tucked in at the back of our bookshelf was a 1948 edition of the Collins Authors and Printers Dictionary, which was first published in 1905.

I am not sure why or what it was doing in there. Maybe it was still some use to our production team of the 1980s.

It contained one essay by a RW Chapman that gave a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of the hot metal age; when each word was shaped from molten lead, before being placed by hand into wooden typecases that ultimately made up a page.

It was a precise craft. And the only thing hotter than the lead itself was the interface between whimsical authors and the masters of the compositor’s art.

RW Chapman was definitely on the side of the comps.

“We have grown accustomed to write so fast, and to supply copy at so short notice, that we are not disposed to treat as a grave responsibility the committal of manuscript to be set up,” he lectured before going on to talk about pesky corrections.

“If a correction is irresistible, it should be considered what will be the result. Even an apparently trifling addition often produces in closely set type a dislocation which ends only with the paragraph, and therefore means shifting hundreds of minute pieces of metal.”

But the consequences are sometimes far worse. He reminded readers that books are printed in sixteen page sections. Each section comprised two eight page forms. A change, such as adding a paragraph to the start of a section, could impact on all 16 pages across both forms.

“To reconstitute the sheet both forms will have to be broken up, the type pages transferred and re-arranged: and since each page is made up of thousands of pieces of lead in unstable equilibrium, the chances of disturbance are such that when the shock is over a (proof) reader must go through the whole and make good any damage.

“This is reimposition. All these processes mean the passage from one to another department of the printing house of the type; 16 pages of small octavo weighs half a hundred weight.”

Building on the theme that authors are basically ball-busters as well as back-breakers he wrote:

“Authors would doubtless treat a proof with more respect is they realised typesetting is not purely a mechanical act. Words do not arrange themselves; about a quarter of the compositor’s time is spent in spacing his letters, after he has picked them up and placed them in order, and a well set page, in which the spacing strikes the eye as uniform, is a work of art. To disturb it for a trifle is injurious as well as costly.

“It should be a point of honour not to inflict upon the printer and publisher the burden of irritating afterthought and infirm vacillations.”

No doubt even today such sentiments might get a resounding ‘hear, hear’ from production people everywhere.

From June, The Drum will be located at 4th Floor,

The Mercat Building, 26 Gallowgate, Glasgow, G1 5AB.


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