We keep getting told how publishing in undergoing its greatest transformation since Gutenberg, and perhaps it is. But our tendency to lump the whole history of publishing into one ‘pre-web’ catagory means we can forget how much it changed fairly recently. Publishing was last turned on its head in the 1980s. How it did might have some hints as to how things might develop.
First, the basics. Gutenberg invented movable type in about 1455. That meant that to put letters on pages, someone had to stand in front of a tray of metal characters and put them in place one letter at a time. The finished pages of type were inked, and paper was pressed down to make a finished page. Printing got more sophisticated, but the manually arranging of little lead letters continued pretty much unchanged until about 1900. That’s 450 years, which is a long time, even for turtles.
Then, in 1900, at least two companies, Monotype and Linotype, came up with methods of mechanically automating this process. Someone would type into a typewriter-like keyboard, which would, through a series of mechanical miracles, produce the lead letters, and the rest of the process continued as normal. This method remained the dominant one for about 70 years. Although this was a big change, it was not revolutionary. The mediaeval guild system had morphed seamlessly into trade unionism. Working methods had become custom, which then became ossified into rigid practice.
In the 1960s, two big things happened. Firstly, lithography started to take the place of old-fashioned letterpress printing. Instead of ink-coated metal being pressed onto paper, printing was achieved by taking advantage of the fact that oil and water do not mix. This was done by coating one side of a metal sheet with a photo sensitive layer. You would take a photograph – a big photograph – of a page you wanted to print. Then you would take the sheet of negative film that resulted, place it over the metal sheet, and expose it to ultraviolet light. When this was finished, you had a piece of metal with a faint picture on it. Then you kept the plate wet. Water was repelled by the exposed part of the plate, which meant that ink could stick to it.
This meant that you no longer needed lead type to print anything. In practice, many printers still used old fashioned methods to produce a ‘galley’ of type (a single sheet of paper printed from the lead letters) to make the artwork which would end up being photographed. But, soon, phototypesetting became more attractive.
This way, instead of your typesetting machine producing a lead letter, it would flash a beam of letter-shaped light onto photographic paper, as you typed. The output would be a sheet of photographic paper, or bromide, which could be stuck into place on your page artwork, using sticky wax.
These new methods gave great creative freedom. You could now print pretty much anything you imagined, without having to make a metal model of it first. But everyone from Gutenberg’s first print shop was still in attendance. Typesetting was a specialist job, requiring great skill. A typesetter would start as an Apprentice (and would have to pay for an indenture for the privilege of being given the job), until he became a Journeyman, when he could work elsewhere. After 7 years, he could become a Master. There was no way to short-cut the system.
Enter the Digital age. Which will be in Part 2.